‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ shows just what a great satirical poet Robert Burns could be. Like John Betjeman’s later poem ‘In Westminster Abbey’, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ – a poem from 1785 – uses the form of a prayer to expose religious hypocrisy and ruthless self-preservation – here, the self-preservation of ‘Holy Willie’, a church elder.
Holy Willie’s Prayer
Holy Willie was a rather oldish bachelor elder, in the parish of Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering, which ends in tippling orthodoxy, and for that spiritualized bawdry which refines to
liquorish devotion. In a sessional process with a gentleman in Mauchline-a Mr.Gavin Hamilton-Holy Willie and his priest, Father Auld, after full hearing in the presbytery of Ayr, came off but second best; owing partly to the oratorical powers of Mr. Robert Aiken, Mr. Hamilton’s counsel; but chiefly to Mr. Hamilton’s being one of the most irreproachable and truly respectable characters in the county. On losing the process, the muse overheard him [Holy Willie] at his devotions, as follows:-
O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell,
Who, as it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ ten to hell,
A’ for Thy glory,
And no for ony gude or ill
They’ve done afore Thee!
I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an’ grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.
What was I, or my generation,
That I should get sic exaltation,
I wha deserve most just damnation
For broken laws,
Five thousand years ere my creation,
Thro’ Adam’s cause?
When frae my mither’s womb I fell,
Thou might hae plunged me in hell,
To gnash my gums, to weep and wail,
In burnin lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell,
Chain’d to their stakes.
Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I’m here a pillar o’ Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a’ Thy flock.
O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an’ swearers swear,
An’ singin there, an’ dancin here,
Wi’ great and sma’;
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a’.
But yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust:
An’ sometimes, too, in wardly trust,
Vile self gets in:
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil’d wi’ sin.
O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi’ Meg-
Thy pardon I sincerely beg,
O! may’t ne’er be a livin plague
To my dishonour,
An’ I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.
Besides, I farther maun allow,
Wi’ Leezie’s lass, three times I trow-
But Lord, that Friday I was fou,
When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her.
Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn
Buffet Thy servant e’en and morn,
Lest he owre proud and high shou’d turn,
That he’s sae gifted:
If sae, Thy han’ maun e’en be borne,
Until Thou lift it.
Lord, bless Thy chosen in this place,
For here Thou hast a chosen race:
But God confound their stubborn face,
An’ blast their name,
Wha bring Thy elders to disgrace
An’ public shame.
Lord, mind Gaw’n Hamilton’s deserts;
He drinks, an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes,
Yet has sae mony takin arts,
Wi’ great and sma’,
Frae God’s ain priest the people’s hearts
He steals awa.
An’ when we chasten’d him therefor,
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,
An’ set the warld in a roar
O’ laughing at us;-
Curse Thou his basket and his store,
Kail an’ potatoes.
Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray’r,
Against that Presbyt’ry o’ Ayr;
Thy strong right hand, Lord, make it bare
Upo’ their heads;
Lord visit them, an’ dinna spare,
For their misdeeds.
O Lord, my God! that glib-tongu’d Aiken,
My vera heart and flesh are quakin,
To think how we stood sweatin’, shakin,
An’ p-‘d wi’ dread,
While he, wi’ hingin lip an’ snakin,
Held up his head.
Lord, in Thy day o’ vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them wha did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by ’em,
Nor hear their pray’r,
But for Thy people’s sake, destroy ’em,
An’ dinna spare.
But, Lord, remember me an’ mine
Wi’ mercies temp’ral an’ divine,
That I for grace an’ gear may shine,
Excell’d by nane,
And a’ the glory shall be thine,
If you enjoyed ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, you might also enjoy Burns’s poem likening his beloved to a red, red rose.