Comin' Thro the Rye

    O, JENNY'S a' weet, poor body,
    Jenny's seldom dry;
    She draigl't a' her petticoattie
    Comin thro' the rye.

            Comin thro the rye, poor body,
                 Comin thro the rye,
            She draigl't a'her petticoatie,
                 Comin thro the rye!

    Gin a body meet a body
    Comin thro the rye,
    Gin a body kiss a body,
    Need a body cry ?

    Gin a body meet a body
    Comin thro the glen,
    Gin a body kiss a body,
    Need the warld ken?

Robert Burns(1759-1796)

Words, extremely simple and melodious, words that seem to naturally fall into place are hallmarks of Robert Burns best poetry. In the published version which has been formatted here as it was printed you can see that it practically sings itself. In the published version of 1788 the poet leaves it to the reader to decide what Jenny was doing out in the field. The earlier and longer version that ninar writes about, and does a wonderful job defining what many of the words mean, made it clear she was doing just what Holden Caulfield might have thought she was. Burn's poem later became the climax and the inspiration for the title of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye a novel that can be read at any stage in life. What makes it classic literature is the plain fact that there's a bit of Holden in all of us. He steals away from his prep school and roams about New York City for several days trying to make sense of his world that is full of phonies and people who depress him. He is posed at the edge of entering adulthood. When I was young this novel spoke to me more than any other, today I am deeply impressed by Salinger's devastating re-creation of what it means to be young. The following excerpt is where Holden is speaking to his ten year old sister Phoebe about his thoughful reaction and insight to Burn's poem:

"You know that song 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'? I'd like -"
"If 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye!' old Phoebe said. It's a poem by Robert Burns."
"I know it's a poem by Robert Burns."
"She was right, though. It is 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye.' I didn't know it then, though."
"Anyway, I keep picturing all these kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing at the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff
- I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."

On the street of New York a young boy has been repeating the poem and it's caught both Phoebe's and Holden's attention. Phoebe notes that the boy has mistaken the words, so that "If a body meet a body coming through the rye" becomes "If a body catch a body coming through the rye". Holden has an epiphany realizing he wants to be - the catcher in the rye. He imagines himself as the hero standing on the edge, catching kids coming through the rye and not seeing where they are going, from falling off of the cliff. By observing the young boy walking along the curb singing Comin Thro' the Rye and even though he's gotten the words wrong that's beside the point as far as Holden is concerned. The song for Holden has become symbolic imagery about where he is in his life, an image of a young boy on the curbstone of life plunging helplessly and irreversibly into adulthood. Once the reader can see that this is a coming of age story the rest of the book comes to light.

The Catcher in the Rye became an almost (because it was banned for a period of time) immediate success when it was first published in 1951 and has come to be regarded as one of this century's real classics.


A Catcher's Page:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye, Lb Books; Reissue edition (May 1991).

CST Approved.