This is one of the most characteristic of all Burns Songs, although one of his earliest. In August 1784, he sets it down in his commonplace book, with some remarks on "the various species of young men" whom he divides into two classes - "the grave and the merry" The former he reckons to be those who are either "goaded on by the love of money," or else "whose darling wish it is to make a figure in the world," and the latter he notes as "the jovial lads, who have too much fire and spirit to have any settled rule of action, but without much deliberation follow the strong impulses of nature". "I do not see," he adds, "that the turn of mind and pursuits of such a one as the following verses describe - who steals thro' the vale of life, amusing himself with every little flower that fortune throws in his way, is, in the least, more inimical to the sacred interests of piety and virtue. I do not see but he may gain heaven as well as he who, straining straight forward, and perhaps bespattering all about him, gains some of life's little eminences, where, after all, he can only see and be seen a little more conspicuously than he whom in the pride of his heart, he is apt to term the poor, indolent devil he has left behind him.
So wrote Burns about Green Grow the Rashes. Now what he is saying in all that, and in the song, is that we should all grab our pleasures where we can and when we can and that there is nothing wrong with this attitude.
There is nothing complicated about this song, it is a simple theme. Is a person any better or worse ( as a person ) if they follow a rigid, narrow path in life, than one who is carefree? Burns puts forward the view that the happiest hours and the most joyfull times ( and therefore the most carefree ) are spent in the company of the opposite sex.
I suppose taking this view further, but here we are taking the poem into areas which are not exactly stated but are implicit, is that in a Calvanist society the feelings of guilt are man made, God will not punish us for enjoying ourselves, nor will He judge us on that basis either.
This is one of the most characteristic of all Burns Songs. It was originally written without the final verse. Burns was rewriting an old song of which there are at least three bawdy versions. Burns complete recasting of these course old fragments into a finished song which has a note of tenderness and at the same time a leavening of wit is characteristic of his method as a song writer.
His version expresses the complete abandon to the moments emotion which is the theme of so many of his best songs. Its delicacy of phrasing and aptness of expression produce a peculiar sense of inevitability which has kept the song universally popular. It also fits aptly to the tune and was one of the first of Burns songs to be printed with music. It appeared in the Scots Musical Museum 1787.
Green grow the rashes, O Green grow the rashes, O The sweetest hours that e'er I spent Are spent amang the lasses, OHe then builds the song up to a gradual climax of extravagance and ends with a deft compliment to the lasses.
There's nought but care on ev'ry han' In every hour that passes, O What signifies the life o' man An' 'twere na for the lasses, O The war'ly race may riches chase An' riches still may fly them, O An' tho' at last they catch them fast Their hearts can ne'er enjoy them, O But gie me a cannie hour at e'en My arms about my Dearie, O An' warly cares, an' warly men May a' gae tapsalteerie, O For you sae douse, ye sneer at this Ye're nought but senseless asses, O The wisest Man the warl' e'er saw He dearly lov'd the lasses, O Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears Her noblest work she classes, O Her prentice han' she try'd on man An' then she made the lasses, O
This has all the qualities of a good song. It distills a single mood yet it has structure, working up to a climax. It is thoroughly singable; indeed, it sings itself, even without the tune. The phrasing is deft, and even witty; yet the ideas do not not stand out from the poem to distract attention from the simple, emotional quality. Although the poem in a sense constitutes a profession of faith, there is nothing rhetorical or sententious about the utterance; the maintaining of the lilt (helped by the repetition of that final O in every second and fourth line) is adroitly done and, helps to remind us continuously that this is a song, not a recitation. All in all, this apparently simple lyric is the consummate singing presentation of man who loves. In this particular direction, art can go no further.