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Jolly Beggars is a poem in the form of a cantata, an "opera of beggary" written in 1785 by the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
In subject matter and style it reflects Burns' wide range of interests and gifts. He always had a taste, Burns once said, for the company of blackguards, although no ambition to become a blackguard himself. The scene of the work is Paosie Nansie's hedge alehouse. The characters, all noisy vagrants, rise in turn and, after short recitative introductions, sing of their braveries, debaucheries, loves, and lusts; of highways and hedges; of old days, soldier boys, and youth.
The songs arc in the manner of the folk ballads of Swift, Fielding, Rabelais, and Shakespeare's Falstaff; the setting and characters, in the manner of Jan Steen's paintings of lusty merrymaking.
Because The Jolly Beggars offended the genteel tradition of the day, contemporary critics tended to treat it apologetically. A later return to appreciation of broad realism in literature brought a more valid approach. The chief excellence of the work lies in its minstrelsy, which takes the direction of coarse, bludgeoning humor.
As the genuine balladry of the highway people, it is one of the best genre pieces in English.
Burns wrote the poem after a visit to an alehouse where vagrants were carousing, but out of consideration for his public's sense of propriety, he excluded it from his published work. Part of it was first printed in 1799 from a manuscript given to friends. Another manuscript was added in 1801, making the poem complete.