A Short Analysis of Robert Burns’s ‘Auld Lang Syne’

‘Auld Lang Syne’ – which loosely translates into modern English as ‘old long since’ – is one of Robert Burns’s most famous poems, which is remarkable since Robert Burns almost certainly didn’t write it. What are the origins of this, one of the most famous songs in the world? In this post, we’re going in search of the meaning of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, as well as offering some words of analysis of its lyrics.

Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

Chorus. For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint stowp!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
For auld, &c.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
For auld, &c.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin’ auld lang syne.
For auld, &c.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
For auld, &c.

Although it’s often attributed to Robert Burns, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (i.e. ‘old long since’ or ‘a long time ago’) was based on a traditional song which Burns wrote down, in an attempt to preserve the traditional oral culture of his country. Burns himself described ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as ‘an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man’s singing.’ Robert Burns’s most famous poem or song wasn’t actually by Robert Burns.

‘Auld Lang Syne’ is, of course, among the most recognisable poems or songs written in English, thanks to its popularity at New Year celebrations around the world. The last line should technically be ‘For auld lang syne’ rather than ‘For the sake of auld lang syne’ – the three extra syllables are usually added to avoid stretching that monosyllabic ‘For’ for – well, for a long, long time, but they aren’t in the original (whoever the ‘original’ might have been by).

To ‘tak a right gude-willie waught’ may sound borderline rude, but it actually means simply ‘take some good will’ or ‘have a drink together’. So, now we know. And while we’re glossing words, ‘jo’ means ‘joy’ (in ‘my jo’), ‘ye’ll be your pint stowp’ means ‘you’ll pay for your pint cup’, ‘braes’ are slopes, to have ‘pou’d the gowans’ is to have pulled the daisies, and your ‘fitt’ is your foot. A ‘burn’, of course, is a stream, while ‘dine’ is dinner-time. ‘Braid’ means broad, and your ‘fiere’ is your friend.

Like many good songs, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has a refrain, and is organised into quatrains rhyming abcb, with the last line iterating the title, ‘Auld Lang Syne’. How many people link arms and sing the song every New Year without being aware either of the title’s meaning or the fact that Robert Burns never wrote it?

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