John Barleycorn


You may know that 25th January is Burns Night in Scotland, the night that patriotic Scots all over the world celebrate the life and work of one of their most famous sons, Robert Burns. Also known as Rabbie Burns, he was a prolific writer, poet, philosopher and commentator of the mid to late eighteenth century and 25th January is the anniversary of his birth.

Here is one my favourite poems of his, “John Barleycorn”. It has been adapted many times over the years and has been performed by folk singers and poets alike. It tells the story of John Barleycorn – the folk name for corn – and his lifecycle from the sowing of the seed to his “death” at harvest time.

John Barleycorn: A Ballad

There was three kings unto the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and plough’d him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
And show’rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surpris’d them all.

The sultry suns of Summer came,
And he grew thick and strong;
His head weel arm’d wi’ pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.

The sober Autumn enter’d mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show’d he bagan to fail.

His colour sicken’d more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.

They’ve taen a weapon, long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then tied him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.

They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgell’d him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turn’d him o’er and o’er.

They filled up a darksome pit
With water to the brim;
They heaved in John Barleycorn,
There let him sink or swim.

They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him further woe;
And still, as signs of life appear’d,
They toss’d him to and fro.

They wasted, o’er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller us’d him worst of all,
For he crush’d him between two stones.

And they hae taen his very heart’s blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.

‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy;
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!

Robert Burns

I love the Steeleye Span version of this; I hope you enjoy it too.

So to all you Scots out there, happy Burns Night to you and I hope you enjoyed your neeps and tatties with your haggis. Slainte mhor agad!

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About Pam Smith

I am a Christian and currently exploring vocation. I am a writer, I conduct a brass band, I am an avid reader and when I'm not doing any of those things I crochet with a fierce passion. I am mum to two fantastic young adults, celebrating my Silver wedding anniversary in 2016 with my husband. I recently gained my Bachelor of Arts with honours.
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4 Responses to John Barleycorn

  1. I’ve been meaning to ask how your father – in – law is doing. I’ve been praying for him and hope he’s doing well!

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    • sterlingsop says:

      Hi, thanks for your prayers, we appreciate them. My father in law has had his mini-stroke confirmed and they’ve also told him there is evidence that it wasn’t the first one. He has got a few language and mobility problems and the doctors say that is because of scarring on his brain from the previous strokes. He is well in himself and is enjoying life as before, but we are all extremely wary of the next one. They have warned us that he is likely to suffer a series of smaller strokes yet but there is also the possibility of a major one on the cards. It’s a worry and your prayers do help. Thank you 🙂

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      • viviellevirgule says:

        Thanks for the update. It’s good to hear that he’s enjoying life, but also certainly scary to know that he’s at risk for more.

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  2. mairedubhtx says:

    I knew about Robert Burns but didn’t know there was a Burns Night. Thanks for telling me about it and for posting the Burns’ poem.

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