Harvard Classics

July 21 – Robert Burns: Selected Poems

Scotland’s Own Poet
The songs of Burns are the links, the watchwords, the symbols of the Scots. He is the last of the ballad singers. In his works are preserved the best songs of his people.
(Robert Burns died July 21, 1796.)
Read from BURNS‘ POEMS Vol. 6, pp. 7079

Robert Burns’s poem, Death and Doctor Hornbook, 1785, tells of the drunken narrator’s late night encounter with Death. The Grim Reaper is annoyed that ‘Dr Hornbook’, a local schoolteacher who has taken to selling medications and giving medical advice, is successfully thwarting his efforts to gather victims. The poet fears that the local gravedigger will be unemployed but Death reassures him that this will not be the case since Hornbook kills more than he cures. Previous commentators have regarded the poem as a simple satire on amateur doctoring. However, it is here argued that, if interpreted in the light of the exoteric and inclusive character of 18th century medical knowledge and practice, the poem is revealed to have a much broader reference as well as being more subtle and morally ambiguous. It is a satire on 18th century medicine as a whole.

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