The Bonnie Broukit Bairn

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Mars is braw in crammasy,
Venus in a green silk goun,
The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,
Their starry talk’s a wheen o’ blethers,
Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!
– But greet, an’ in your tears ye’ll droun
The hail clanjamfrie!

The poem begins with a view of the sky at night. In the first three lines we are presented with beautiful personified images of the crimson red of Mars, the shimmering green of Venus, and the graceful gold of the moon and its shining rays. We might imagine something like a pageant of royalty.

The planets have a special place in poetry. Poets usually invoke them as gods, celestial beings who hold sway over the course of events on Earth. Mars and Venus are Roman gods: Mars the god of war, Venus the god of love and beauty. The moon, being the most visible of the planets from Earth, is accorded great magical power. It gives light in the darkness. We know it has the power to move tides, even affect moods. It is a transforming power. We should be in awe of these great heavenly bodies. We might read poets asking the gods for favours – much like our ancestors did, long ago – or berating them if things aren’t going the poet’s way.

MacDiarmid uses a strong declarative sentence to open with; line 2 is strengthened by the elision of “is braw”: e.g. Venus (is braw) in a green silk goun. Line 3 is again declarative, but more descriptive, further rounding out our perceptions of these ancient planets. But as we are carried swiftly on by a rolling iambic rhythm, line 4 surprises us. The poet says that these immense celestial beings are full of high-falutin’ talk, that they’re talking nonsense. We look again at the opening of the poem, now with a tinge of irony since we know he’s not being serious in his praise. As we re-read the first three lines we detect a self-satisfaction in Mars, a certain primness in Venus, a boastful showiness in the Moon.

The strong, declarative sentences he employs in the first two lines still resound, but rather ludicrously. In lines 3 and 4 we become aware of the first instance of rhyme in the poem so far: the rhyming of the moon’s “gowden feathers” with “wheen o’ blethers” underscores the poet’s contempt. The moon more closely resembles a fussy old gossiping granny than a God.

We recall that the title of the poem is The Bonnie Broukit Bairn. Why would a neglected child be in such illustrious - if roundly disparaged – company? Line 5 addresses this poor bairn directly – she is planet Earth. The alliterative /b/ in “bonnie broukit bairn” provides strong emphasis here and slows the rhythm of the poem right down, drawing our attention to the poem’s subject. We notice that these two lines rhyme also, and the grammar of the sentence carries the meaning – and our close attention with it – from “Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’” onto “Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!” more fluently than in previous lines.

The poet has a great deal of sympathy for Earth, this poor lost child. “Here”, he says, “these guys up there are so full of their own self-importance. Hear them? Blethering away, making all that empty racket with their big talk – and they won’t even give you the time of day! ”

The last two lines of the poem are written in italics, and line 7 begins with a dash, further adding emphasis. This is the part where we as readers are keenest to unravel the poem’s meaning. “– But greet, an’ in your tears ye’ll droun” – the use of enjambement here, leaving the rest of the sentence to the next line, creates a brief moment of tension. For a moment we think: is he saying that our planet (really the Human Race) will drown itself in its own tears? Are they tears of sorrow? Or joy? Or self-pity? Maybe all of them.

In the final line we learn that the Earth will not drown in its own tears – rather, it is our tears which will drown out this great cacophony made in heaven. That we can cry is proof of our capacity for feeling – a uniquely human trait. In other words, it is our humanity which the poet is celebrating here. Life on earth is what’s important – life and death, the things which make us feel human and all the joys and sorrows that it brings, and not some other-worldly pre-occupations.

In the final two lines we also become aware of the rhyme scheme, abccddba. It is a circular pattern, which underscores the movement of the planets around the sun and the unity of human life as we should live it.