Summary and Analysis of Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns

Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns echoes the very spirit of Scottish dialect which formed the essence of many works of Burns. In-arguably, Tam O’Shanter happens to be the most accomplished work of Robert Burns and hence his most sustained effort. The idea of Tam O’Shanter seeks inspiration from Robert Burns’s personal life and was written at a time when the poet himself was bogged down with worries and difficulties.That he was a master of narrative verse is well depicted in the poem, and that puts him in the same row with the very best of poetic minds in the fifteenth century. The poem sees much in abundance the usage of octosyllabic couplet that marks an effective handling of the drunken mood that occurs as a recurring motif through the episodes depicted in the poem.

Tam O’Shanter has its rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter and draws upon the story where a man sits drinking with his friends and neighbors and forgets about his journey towards home. The drunken mood is introduced to the readers at the very onset of the poem and after the geographical description of the surroundings and the setting of the poem; the episodes in the poem are unfolded one by one. The poet draws upon a picture of marital woes where he touches the reader’s mind hinting the point of marital divide;

“Where sits our sulky sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.


However we are soon introduced to his wife Kate’s saying, which sounds quite alternative to what was said earlier;

She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae sober;

The readers are then soon introduced to Tam, who is just drinking with his friends at a local pub in Ayr, situated miles away from his home in the south. After some time, Tam realizes that he is getting late for home and decides to leave immediately. What’s interesting to note at this point is the vocabulary that the poet uses to depict the realization of the protagonist.

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts forever;

The mood is soon shifted as Tam rides out in the storm (on the back of his horse Meg) heading back home (“holding fast his gude blue bonnet”). As Tam continues to ride and move forward, he approaches the “Kirk” in order to cross River Doon. He is then drawn towards the sound of “mirth and dancing” and spots strange flashes of light across the street.

He sees the witches playing foul at the church as they torch it down. (The very idea of Tam O’ Shanter and the church which was already in its groveling stage had prompted Burns to pen picture a similar scene where the church was depicted in distress.) Soon after, Tam’s drunken state is made to realize once again and there is a strong hint towards readers as what adverse effects can alcohol have

Then a reminder of Tam’s drunken state and the reader is again included among those for whom alcohol can have unfortunate consequences:

Wi’ tippeny [ale], we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae [whisky], we’ll face the devil!

Tam’s horse is reluctant to ride any further but Tam pushes her and what he sees in the church are full blown witches accompanying the Devil playing on the bagpiper. The church too was depicted with more than one object that stands as a valid symbol of death (bones, knives, ropes).  The witches continue their mirth and dancing, and start to undress until they are in their “sarks” or underspants. The witches were young but seeing them standing in their underpants didn’t arouse Tam as expressed through the poem humorously,except for the young Nannie who was “a souple jade”. When Tam calls out at here, the witches come to know that they are being watched and start chasing Tam and Meg.

Nannie, the young witch flying well ahead of the other witches follows Tam and Meg as they draw close to cross the bridge over the nearby stream and she makes one last attempt  to catch hold of them as she pulls off Megs tail.

The carlin claught her by the rump
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Soon after the poem comes to an abrupt end with;

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam O’Shanter’s mare
.

The sudden drift towards standard English makes what TamO’Shanter by Robert Burns is all about –a mock heroic piece which has all elements depicting a story of a drunken man, torn between the forces of a good and evil and finally jumps to find his own self and a way to fight back his woes and emerge victorious.