“LET US DAE OR DEE!” The French springheids o Burns’s Jacobin slogan-cries.

Robert Burns’ pairt-takkin fir the French Revolution is a weel-kent pairt o his legend an bides, mair nor twa hunner year efter his daith in 1796, an ongangin pynt o poleetical an academic stramash in Scotland. Aither tae ding doon his politics, tae excuise it, ruise it, or tae wiss he haed gaed faurer, the analysis o Burns’ French leanins aye maks the peak o his biographies – whilk cannae but refleck thiir scrievers’ ain pairt-takkins.

Houaniver, yon debates hae aften yokit thaimsel muckle mair wi the Scoto-French dimension o the life o the man nor the wark o the makkar. Truelins, gin a wheen o Jacobin witterins o Burns’ life hae been weel reportit an flytit ower, the French springheids o some o Burns’ best kent poems haes scarcelins been brocht tae mind.

It’s nae afore Robert Crawford’s 2009 biography, The Bard, that (tae ma kennin) a muckle biography o Burns heichlichtit the French influence o twa o his maist kenspeckle poems: ‘Scots wha hae’ an ‘A Man’s A Man’. Indeed, baith o thaim include indirect owersettins o the French raidical slogan-cries: “Vivre libre ou mourir (“Live free or dee”), fir the sang o Bannockburn, an ‘Ça ira!’ (‘it will dae’ or ‘it will gae’) fir the sang cantit by Sheena Wellington at the openin session o the reforgaithert Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Wi regaird tae the French springheid o ‘Scots wha hae’, ane first insicht is gied by the letter sent by Burns tae George Thomson, his editor, on the 1st September 1793 – efter a simmer that haed seen the French mairches birst intae fire an Robespierre risin tae pooer. The letter referrit tae ‘Scots wha hae’ an garred us ken that the poem haed nae anely been inspirit by the “accidental recollection” o the Scottish War o Independence, “that glorious struggle for freedom”, but haed forbye been “associated with the glowing idea of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient.”

Unner the licht o Burns’s observations aboot his ain poem, the hindermaist stanza o ‘Scots wha hae’ taks on a gey new sense.

“Lay the proud usuper low
Tyrtans fall in every foe
LIBERTY’s in ev’ry blow
Let us DO or DEE”

(the caipital letters are in Burns’s oreeginal version).

As “not quite so ancient” events were aye in awbody’s thocht, the gangin thegither o “LIBERTY” an o the verb “DEE” were belike tae mynd the reader o the auld warld-kent revolutionary slogan: “Vivre Libre ou Mourir” (Live Free or Dee). Awtho Burns didnae owerset yon slogan direckly fae French, favourin the alliteration atween “Do” an “Dee”, the reference, in 1793, wad hae been plain as parritch! A hunner an fity towmond syne, in 1957, yon wis still kenable fir Samuil Marshak, the Soviet owersetter o Burns, wha kythed “Let us DO or DEE” intae the Rooshian “smert ili svobodu”: “Death or Liberty”. The heich kennin o the French revolution in the USSR micht explain Marshak’s mesmerisin tent o yon French-Scottish poleetical link.

Siclike, fir Burns’s weel-kent poem, “A Man’s a Man”, the owerwurd “for aw that” kythes sib tae ane ither French slogan: “Ca ira!”. Yon wis areadies mentiont by Marylin Butler in the 1997 buik Burns and cultural authority, whaur she scrievit that “A Man’s a Man” wis “the closest rendering in English of the letter and spirit of the notorious Jacobin song”.
A wheen pynts can be makkit tae uphaud Butler’s argument. Furst, “for aw that” an “ça ira” are siclike. They hae the same nummer o sylabes (three), they baith stress the last soond “a”, an they are baith cantit ower an ower: “for aw that an aw that”, an “Ah, ça ira, ça ira, ça ira” fir the French sang.
Saicontly, “ça ira” wis weel kent tae Burns. Forby, he wis reportit tae hae cantit the revolutionary sang in Dumfries Theatre in 1792, the same towmond he screivit the poem, ‘The Rights of Women’, whaes hindermaist lines are: ‘Let Majesty your first attention summon / Ah, ça ira! The Majesty of Woman’.

Hinderly, anither witterin is gied by Burns himsel in the hindmaist stanza o ‘A Man’s A Man’ whan he scrieves: “Then let us pray that come it may / As come it will for a’ that / That sense and worth o’er the earth / Shall bear the gree an a’ that”. The line “as come it will for a’ that” is a direct owersettin o the French slogan. Ca ira means “it will dae”, or “it will come” an is generally said in a comfortin wey, whan a body is tholin mony a haurdship. “As come it will, for a’ that” proports a sense o radical howp as weel as the awaurness that “a’ that” isnae braw the noo, an haes yet tae be tholed afore it gets better. In this, it perfitly mairres wi the meanin o the oreeginal French. Truelins, yon heichlichts Burns’s little-kent abeelities as an owersetter.

Unhappily, nivver were yon Scoto-French poleetico-cultural links stresst by the French owersetters o Robert Burns. In Léon de Wailly’s 1843 an Jean-Claude Crapoulet’s 1994 versions o “Scots wha hae”, “Let us do or dee” is owerset intae “Vaincre ou mourir” (“Win or Die”) an “Il faut se batter ou mourir” (“Ane maun fecht or dee”). Yon are fair warlike slogans but they dinnae cairry ony historical or poleetical meanin. Siclike are de Wailly’s, Angellier (1893) an Crapoulet’s owersettins o “for aw that”, whilk becomes “après tout” (“efter aw”), “malgré tout” an “en dépit de ça” (naewistaundin o that).

The lest twa were belike influencit by the successfu 1843 German owersettin o “A Man’s A Man” by Ferdinand Freiligrath: Trotz Alledem (naewistaundin o that). Yon braw version o Burns’s ode tae human britherhood thrivit muckle fae the 1848 German revolution onwart, tae the pynt at it wis e’en yaised by the communist leader Karl Liebneckt as the teetle o the hindermaist airticle he scrievit afore his execution in 1919. Gin Freiligrath’s revolutionary version o “A Man’s a Man” shud hae inspirit French Burnsians tae mak a radical owersettin o their ain, thai misfortuinately nivver tuik tent o the French reference whilk lies at the hert o the bard’s poem.

Ah wad like tae end this airticle by proponin ma ain French versions o “Scots wha hae” an “A Man’s a Man”. Yon mak the maist o the Scoto-French poleetico-cultural links Ah hae mentiont. Ah owerset “Let us Do or Dee” intae “Vivre libre ou mourir” an “For aw that” intae “ça ira”. Baith versions are maistly faithfu tae the origeenal, apairt fae the penult line o “Scots wha hae” (Liberty’s in ev’ry blow) whilk Ah haed tae alter tae pit the concept o “Liberty” thegither wi the wurd “Dee” in the final line
Here are the first and hindmaist stanza o ilk owerset poem:

Ecossais, qui avez.

Ecossais qui avez, tels Wallace, saigné,
Ecossais, vous que Bruce a maintes fois menés ;

Entrez dans votre lit aux draps ensanglantés –
A défaut de victoire !
Enfin ! C’est aujourd’hui ! C’est le jour ! C’est l’heure !
Voyez de la bataille la lugubre lueur ;
Voyez venir Edouard au regard supérieur –
Les fers du désespoir !


Par l’oppression vile et ses malheurs en chaîne !
Par vos fils enserrés dans leurs serviles chaînes !
Par torrents couleront nos plus précieuses veines
Pour les faire affranchir !
A bas le prétentieux usurpateur, à bas !
Le tyran à genoux pour tout loup mis à bas
Et que chaque bouffée partout sonne le glas :
Vivre libre ou mourir !”

Est-ce l’honnête pauvreté
Qui le tient courbé comme ça ?
Le lâche esclave il faut lâcher
Osons, les pauvres ! Ça ira !
Ca ira, Ca ira !
Nos travaux humbles, ça ira !
Le rang n’est rien que le papier
Mais l’homme est l’or, ah ça ira !

Alors prions pour l’éclosion
(qui éclora car ça ira !)
D’un monde imprégné de raison
Et de talent et ça ira !
Ca ira, Ca ira !
Ça vient, ça vient, et ça ira !
Quand tous les hommes sur la terre
Seront des frères, ça ira !

Burns wis aye an auld ally !

Paul Malgrati is a historie graduate o Sciences Po, in his hame ceety o Paris, as pairt o whilk he spent an excheenge year atween 2013-2014 at the university o Sanct Aundraes. He’s noo returnit tae Sanct Aundraes an Scotland tae yoke hisel tae a PhD on the poleetical yaises o Robert Burns’ memorie in 20th centurie Scotland, an is gey blythe tae be back an tae forder Scotland’s cultural an poleetical cause in ony wey he can.