Robert Burns World Literature Analysis
In a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds on July 13, 1818, poet John Keats wrote of Burns:One song of Burns’s is of more worth to you than all I could think for a whole year in his native country. His misery is a dead weight upon the nimbleness of one’s quill—I tried to forget it—to drink toddy without any care—to write a merry sonnet—it won’t do—he talked with bitches—he drank with blackguards, he was miserable—We can see horribly clear, in the works of such a man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.
Keats admires Burns’s humanity, an expansiveness that elevates Burns’s vision to those who, in William Shakespeare’s words from King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), are “God’s spies.” In his range, Burns indeed may be compared with such English poets of tolerance and humanity as Geoffrey Chaucer and Robert Browning; although his psychology and depth of understanding are less acute than those writers, his lyrical gifts are possibly purer. Burns’s scope includes a wide range of types and literary conventions, from sketches on the “bitches” and “blackguards” in taverns or in churches, to the most elevated love songs, to rallying choruses for democratic solidarity. A poet of the people, Burns wrote so that “his whole life” became the subject of his art.
Burns’s major poetry generally falls into five convenient groupings: drinking songs; love songs; satires, usually on Calvinistic rigors; democratic chants or songs; and verse narratives. In addition, he wrote miscellaneous verse epistles, mostly moralistic but sometimes aesthetic, and occasional pieces, usually to commemorate a particular event or to praise (sometimes flatter) a particular person. Among his most notable drinking songs are “The Jolly Beggars” and “Willy Brew’d a Peck of Maut.” Examples of his love lyrics include “Ae Fond Kiss,” “Highland Mary,” “A Red, Red Rose,” and “O, Once I Lov’d a Bonie Lass.” Examples of the satires are “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” “Address to the Unco Guid,” and “Address to the Deil.” Among Burns’s patriotic or democratic songs are “Scots, Wha Hae,” “Is There for Honest Poverty,” and the more Jacobean “A Dream” and “The Twa Dogs.” His most famous verse narrative is “Tam O’Shanter.” A good example of Burns’s didactic verse treating his aesthetic is “Epistle to J. Lapraik.” Taken together, these varieties of poetic subjects or types share the Burns signature of spontaneity, wit, freshness, sincerity, and vigor.
Usually classed among the “pre-Romantic” writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Burns is in most regards a true Romantic. Like such major early Romantics as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Burns demonstrates in his verse extemporaneous effusion, directness, and lyricism; like them, he exalts the common man, delights in the rustic (or natural) beauties of the open countryside, and celebrates his own ego. To the extent that Burns is also influenced by neoclassical literary conventions, his verse is generally more tersely epigrammatical (except in comparison with much of Byron’s work), less innovative in terms of experimentation with new meters or forms, and less directly concerned with transcendental emotions. Unlike the major Romantics who followed him, Burns eschewed blank verse and never attempted to write for the theater. These distinctions aside, Burns rightly takes his place with the still-greater poet William Blake as both forerunner and shaper of the Romantic impulse in Western literature.
“The Jolly Beggars”
First published: 1799 (collected in The Canongate Burns, 2001)
Type of work: Poem
Subtitled “A Cantata,” this poem is a medley of rowdy, sometimes ribald, joyous drinking songs.
In “The Study of Poetry,” Matthew Arnold, a severe critic of Burns in general, could not resist describing “The Jolly Beggars” favorably as a “puissant and splendid production.” Literary antecedents of the work, which combines a medley of songs in a loose dramatic structure, go back to John Fletcher’s The Beggar’s Bush (before 1622) or to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728). Slightly more than a generation after Burns, the French poet Pierre-Jean de Béranger would write song-comedic productions such as “Les Gueux” (“The Beggars”) and “Le Vieux Vagabond” (“The Old Vagabond”). However, nothing in Western literature can match Burns’s production for energy, sly wit, and lyricism.
Suggested by a chance visit by the poet with two friends to the “doss house” (brothel) of Poosie Nansie (her real name was Agnes Gibson) in the Cowgate, Mauchline, “The Jolly Beggars” transforms the sordid reality of the original scene into a bawdy, lighthearted comedy. Challenging the prudery of his own day, Burns exalts a kind of rough, natural sensuality, without a trace of sniggering. Although joyous sex is a theme of the poem, its real message is that people must have liberty to live in the way that they wish. No more defiant yet witty lines have been written in defense of freedom:
A fig for those by law protected!Liberty’s a glorious feast!Courts for cowards were erected,Churches built to please the priest!
“A Red, Red Rose”
First published: 1796 (collected in The Canongate Burns, 2001)
Type of work: Poem
The speaker in this well-beloved lyric bids his sweetheart farewell but promises to return to her.
“A Red, Red Rose,” also titled in some anthologies according to its first line, “O, my luve is like a red, red rose,” was written in 1794 and printed in 1796. The song may be enjoyed as a simple, unaffected effusion of sentiment, or it may be understood on a more complex level as a lover’s promises that are full of contradictions, ironies, and paradoxes. The reader should keep in mind the fact that Burns constructed the poem, stanza by stanza, by “deconstructing” old songs and ballads to use parts that he could revise and improve. For example, Burns’s first stanza may be compared with his source, “The Wanton Wife of Castle Gate”: “Her cheeks are like the roses/ That blossom fresh in June;/ O, she’s like a new-strung instrument/ That’s newly put in tune.” Clearly, Burns’s version is more delicate, while at the same time audaciously calculated. By...
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