Robert Burns 1759–1796
(Born Robert Burnes) Scottish poet and lyricist.
The following entry provides critical essays on Burns, published from 1960 through 1992. For further information, see LC, Volume 3.
Called the national poet of Scotland, Burns has attained an almost mythical stature not only in his native land but around the world. He is revered as the poet of "the common man," the "heaven-taught ploughman" who expressed the soul of a nation and sang of universal humanity. His work made acceptable for the first time the use of the Scots dialect in elevated poetry, and his depiction of rural Scottish life and manners marked a radical departure from the stately and decorous subjects typical of eighteenth-century poetry. Burns is admired for his naturalness, compassion, humor, and fervent championship of the innate freedom and dignity of humanity.
Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire to an impoverished tenant farmer and his wife. Although he received little formal schooling, his father, William Burnes (whose famous son later altered the spelling of the family name), was an intelligent man who sought to provide his sons with as much education as possible. He managed to employ a tutor for young Robert and his brother Gilbert, and this, together with Burns's extensive reading, furnished the poet with an adequate knowledge of English literature; it was only later that he discovered and studied the Scottish poetry of his heritage. Burns's family moved from one rented farm to another during his childhood, at each place enduring hard work and financial difficulties. While a young man, Burns acquired a reputation for charm and wit, and began to indulge in numerous love affairs. In 1786, he pledged to marry Jean Armour, who had become pregnant. Her parents forbade the match, but demanded financial restitution from Burns. Angry at this rejection by the Armours, and hurt by what he deemed the too-ready capitulation of their daughter to their demands, Burns resolved to sail to Jamaica to start a new life. The plan never materialized, however, for that year his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published in Kilmarnock. The volume catapulted Burns to sudden, remarkable, but short-lived, fame; upon its success he went to Edinburgh, where for a season he was feted and much admired by the literati, though he remained in relative obscurity for the rest of his life. In the meantime, he was still involved with Jean Armour, who again became pregnant, and whom he was finally able to marry in 1788. Burns carried on his dual professions of poet and tenant farmer until the next year when he obtained a post in the
excise service. It was not an office for which he was particularly well suited, nor one which he enjoyed, but it freed him from the labor of farming. Most of Burns's major poems, with the notable exception of "Tam o'Shanter," had been written by this point in his life; the latter part of his creative career was devoted to collecting and revising the vast body of existing Scottish folk songs. In 1796, at the age of 37, Burns died from rheumatic heart disease, apparently caused by excessive physical exertion and frequent undernourishment as a child.
While the theme of freedom—political, religious, personal, and sexual—dominates Burns's poetry and songs, the themes of love and fellowship also recur. The poem beginning "Is there, for honest poverty," generally referred to by its refrain, "A man's a man for a' that," is an implicitly political assertion of Burns's beliefs in equality and freedom. His outrage over what he considered the false and restricting doctrine of the Scottish church is clear in such satirical poems as "Holy Willie's Prayer" and "The Holy Fair." The first of these concerns a self-professed member of the elect, who through his own narration inadvertently exposes his hypocrisy and ethical deficiencies. "The Holy Fair," a lively, highly descriptive account of a religious gathering, contrasts the dour, threatening view of life espoused by the Calvinist preachers with the reality of life as it is actually lived. The simple celebrants, after dutifully and respectfully attending to the sermons, continue their pleasurable everyday pursuits—the enjoyment of conviviality, drink, and romance, which are ever present in Burns's work. "Scotch Drink," a rousing drinking song, celebrates the joys of love and friendship. The title of "The Jolly Beggars" indicates Burns's attitude toward the main characters of this cantata. Poor and disreputable as these jolly beggars are, they have found their personal freedom and happiness in living outside the mainstream of society. Burns's innumerable love poems and songs are acknowledged as touching expressions of the human experience of love in all its phases: the sexual love of "The Fornicator"; the more mature love of "My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose"; the happiness of a couple grown old together in "John Anderson, My Jo." Another frequently cited aspect of Burns's poetry is its vitality. Whatever his subject, critics find in his verses a riotous celebration of life, an irrepressible joy in living; Bonamy Dobrée has said that Burns "sang of life because he possessed so unusual, so shining a quantity of it." This vitality is often expressed through humor, which is prevalent in Burns's work, from the bawdy humor of "The Jolly Beggars" and the broad farce of "Tam o Shanter," to the irreverent mockery of "The Twa Dogs" and the sharp satire of "Holy Willie's Prayer." Burns's subjects and characters are invariably humble, their stories told against the background of the Scottish rural countryside. Although natural surroundings figure prominently in his work, Burns differed from succeeding Romantic poets in that he had little interest in nature itself, which in his poetry serves but to set the scene for human activity and emotion.
Although the initial publication of Burns's poems in 1786 was attended by immense popular approbation, eighteenth-century critics responded with more reserve. Sentimental poems such as "The Cottar's [or 'Cotter's'] Saturday Night" and "To a Mountain Daisy" received the most favorable attention; Burns's earthier pieces, when not actually repressed, were tactfully ignored: "The Jolly Beggars," now considered one of his best poems, was rejected for years on the ground that it was coarse and contained low subject matter. Although these assessments held sway until well into the nineteenth century, more recent critics have taken an opposing view. "The Cottar's Saturday Night," an idealized portrait of a poor but happy family, is today regarded as affectedly emotional and tritely moralizing. "To a Mountain Daisy," ostensibly occasioned by the poet's inadvertent destruction of a daisy with his plow, is now considered one of Burns's weakest poems. Like "The Cottar's Saturday Night," it is sentimental and contains language and images which contemporary critics find bathetic and false. "To a Mountain Daisy" is often compared to "To a Mouse," as the situations described in the poems are similar; the latter is the poet's address to a mouse he has disturbed with his plow. Most critics today believe that "To a Mouse" expresses a genuine emotion that the other poem lacks, and does so in more engaging language. Interestingly, "To a Mountain Daisy" was written primarily in standard English, while "To a Mouse" is predominantly in Scots; critical reaction to these two poems neatly encapsulates the debate over whether Burns's best work is in English or Scots. It has long been asserted as a general tenet that for Burns, English was the language of thought and Scots the language of emotion. Most modern critics have found this assessment of Burns's poetic bilingualism too simplistic, pointing out that few of Burns's poems are written entirely in English or in Scots. The pieces most commentators acknowledge as his best are those in which he judiciously mingled the two languages.
Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (poetry) 1786
"Tam o'Shanter" (poetry) 1791; published in The Antiquities of Scotland
Poems Ascribed to Robert Burns, the Ayrshire Bard (poetry) 1801
Reliques of Robert Burns, Consisting Chiefly of Original Letters, Poems, and Critical Observations on Scottish Songs (letters, poetry, criticism) 1808
The Poetry of Robert Burns. 4 vols, (poetry, songs) 1896-97
The Letters of Robert Burns. 2 vols, (letters) 1931
SOURCE: "Poet of the Parish," in Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs, Oliver and Boyd, 1960, pp. 111-46.
[In the following essay, Crawford analyzes Burns's attempt at treating local themes in a universal manner in his poetry.]
Many poems of Burns's first period embody the experience of a rural community in a way that has rarely been equalled in English. Ever since neolithic times, the settled village has been, next to the family, the most fundamental unit of society; it has survived war and pestilence, flood and famine, the fall of empires and the decline of civilisations. An art which successfully reflects the way of life of such a community will tend to have a...
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SOURCE: "Burns: A Mouse and a Louse," in The Powers of Poetry, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1960, pp. 74-81.
[A Scottish-born writer and critic, Highet was a classical scholar and distinguished educator. His important studies Juvenal the Satirist (1954) and The Anatomy of Satire (1962) were scholarly works that received wide recognition in the literary community. Below, Highet examines Burns's use of Scottish dialect and meter in his odes "To a Mouse" and "To a Louse."]
Two of the most sympathetic poems in our language are about vermin. One is about a mouse; the other is about a louse. They are in the same pattern of meter, run to approximately the same...
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SOURCE: "The Christis Kirk Tradition: Its Evolution in Scots Poetry to Burns, Part IV," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. II, No. 4, April, 1965, pp. 234-50.
[In the following excerpt, MacLaine analyzes Burns's use of the Christis Kirk genre, which he describes as a "distinctively Scottish genre … [which] well demonstrates [Burns's] ability to make distinguished poetry out of the most ordinary stuff of life."]
It would seem almost inevitable that Burns, ardent student of Scots poetry that he was, would sooner or later try his hand at the Christis Kirk genre. As a matter of fact, he produced six substantial poems more or less closely related...
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SOURCE: "Burns's Comedy of Romantic Love," in PMLA, Vol. 83, No. 2, May, 1968, pp. 429-38.
[In the essay below, Beaty assesses the humorous aspects of Burns's love poetry.]
The eighteenth-century adaptation of sentiment to comedy, as well as the Scottish vernacular tradition, afforded Robert Burns ample precedent for his humorous love poetry. He was obviously interested in examining the comic spirit, as random comments in his letters indicate; yet he apparently elaborated no critical manifesto of his own to explain his practice. Perhaps because he was often regarded as an inspired but untaught genius who succeeded without conscious artistry, influential critics of the...
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SOURCE: "Explaining the Obvious," in Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976, Harcourt & Company, 1976, pp. 139-45.
[Wilbur is an American poet respected for the craftsmanship and elegance of his verse. He employs formal poetic structures and smoothly flowing language as a response to disorder and chaos in modern life. In the following essay, first published in The New York Times Book Review in 1968, Wilbur examines the structure and tone of Burns's poem, "A Red, Red Rose."]
Some months ago a professor friend, who was putting together a textbook on explication, invited me to take a poem of my own choosing and attempt a model commentary on it. I began, of...
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SOURCE: "Poet: Kilmarnock Edition," in Robert Burns: The Man and the Poet; A Round, Unvarnished Account, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970, pp. 107–23.
[In this excerpt, Fitzhugh discusses several poems included in Burns's 1786 collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.]
Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns, Kilmarnock, 1786, was a well-printed paper-bound volume of 240 pages, priced at three shillings. Burns and his friends had gathered over 300 subscriptions, enough to defray expenses, before printing began. In his original proposal to his subscribers, Burns had offered only Scotch poems, but he finally included half a dozen melancholy and...
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SOURCE: "Robert Burns's Declining Fame," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 207–24.
[In the following essay, Bentman contends that Burns's poetry is a significant part of British literary history, despite his declining popularity in recent decades.]
Robert Burns's poetry is all but ignored in current scholarship of British literature. During the past twenty-five years, critics and scholars have often acted as if his poetry did not exist or have treated him as if he were a poet worth scant attention. This recent indifference to Burns's poetry has not been effected, as is usual in such instances of declining fame, by a critical downgrading of...
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SOURCE: "Don't Look Back: Something Might Be Gaining on You," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 870–74.
[Here, White examines Burns's struggle to reconcile "the English literary tradition with which alone his formal education was concerned, and the Scottish literary tradition as he encountered it."]
"There are gains for all our losses; /There is balm for every pain." So a now largely unremembered poet of the previous century assures us. We need the assurance. For if we are led, by any unusual stimulation of the mind and the imagination, to see our world reflected in the mirror of another time, we incline to think the poet's assurance in...
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SOURCE: "Robert Burns," in The Elastic Retort: Essays in Literature and Ideas, The Seabury, 1973, pp. 72–6.
[Rexroth was one of the leading pioneers in the revival of jazz and poetry in the San Francisco area during the 1940s and 1950s. His early poetry was greatly influenced by the surrealism of André Breton, but his later verse became more traditional in style and content, though by no means less complex. However, it was as a critic and translator that Rexroth gained prominence in American letters. As a critic, his acute intelligence and wide sympathy allowed him to examine such varied subjects as jazz, Greek mythology, and the Kabbalah. As a translator, Rexroth was largely responsible...
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SOURCE: "The Satires: Underground Poetry," in Critical Essays on Robert Burns, edited by Donald A. Law, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 90–105.
[In the following essay, Scott details what were considered the scandalous aspects of Burns's satires.]
The unanimity of praise for the satires among modern Scottish critics of Burns is remarkable in a literary scene where controversy is more usual than consent. To David Daiches [in his Robert Burns, 1950], 'The Holy Tulzie' is 'brilliant' and 'extraordinarily effective'; 'Holy Willie's Prayer' possesses 'cosmic irony' and 'perfect dramatic appropriateness'; 'The Holy Fair' is at once 'the finest of those [poems]...
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SOURCE: "Love and the Lassies," in The Songs of Robert Burns: A Study of the Unity of Poetry and Music, Uppsala, 1977, pp. 31–53.
[In this essay, Ericson-Roos analyzes the women of Burns's love poetry, asserting that "Burns shows an extraordinary psychological insight into the feminine mind."]
The majority of Burns's songs deal with love, love seen from the poet's point of view or love seen through the eyes of one of the lovers. There are conventional pieces, droll and humorous scenes, young love, mature love, and erotic love. There are love-songs where the emphasis lies on sentiment, others where it lies on character or on action. Among all these songs we find...
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SOURCE: '"That Bards are Second-Sighted is Nae Joke': The Orality of Burns's World and Work," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XVI, 1981, pp. 208–16.
[In the following essay, Brown examines the influence of the folkloric milieu on Burns's poetry.]
Robert Burns is remembered as much for his personality and character as for his poetry and songs. It is a bit ironic that as an individual his roots in a peasant class are extolled, even emphasized; however, as a creative artist his debt to written, elite precedents are principally cited. Both are probably somewhat extreme positions: as an individual Burns both represented and transcended his class and station of...
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SOURCE: "Burns and Narrative," in The Art of Robert Burns, edited by R.D.S. Jack and Andrew Noble, Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1982, pp. 59–75.
[In the following essay, Wells explores the narrative structure and didactic content of several of Burns's poems.]
Almost everyone, if asked to categorize Burns's work, would describe him as a lyric poet; indeed, the popular image is that of incomparable master of love-songs. Burns, in keeping with his lyrical inclinations, is very much an occasional poet; his canon, in fact, contains well over one hundred poems of a more expository or dramatic nature: verse epistles, addresses, laments and elegies, a cantata, dramatic...
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SOURCE: "'Tam o' Shanter': The Truth of the Tale," in Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era, The University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 149–61.
[Below, McGuirk analyzes Burns's use of irony in "Tam o' Shanter."]
"Tam o' Shanter" tells the story of a drunken farmer who encounters a witches' dance on his way home from a market day carousal in Ayr. The poem offers an adult's retrospective view of horror stories; there is an overtone of indulgent irony in the sections of the poem that describe the witches' dance and its gruesome concomitants. Thomas Carlyle [On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, 1966], writing of the poem, objects to its evident...
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SOURCE: "Point of View in Some Poems of Burns," in Scottish Literary Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, May, 1986, pp. 5–20.
[In this essay, MacLachlan examines Burns's varying role as narrator in the context of his literary-historical position.]
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SOURCE: "Spontaneity and the Strategy of Transcendence in Burns's Kilmarnock Verse-Epistles," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XXIV, 1987, pp. 78-90.
[In the following essay, McKenna offers a thematic and structural analysis of Burns's verse-epistles.]
As a group, Robert Burns's verse-epistles have been consistently ignored by commentators, or at best have received only passing attention by those who expend their energies in analyzing his better known (and in many cases better) poems and songs. Two notable exceptions to this rule are the essays by John C. Weston ["Burns's Use of The Scots Verse-Epistle Form," Philological Quarterly, 49 (April 1970)] and...
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SOURCE: "Words, Music, and Emotion in the Love Songs of Robert Burns," in Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 15, Nos. 1 & 2, February & May, 1991, pp. 225-42.
[Here, Ashmead and Davison explore several features of Burns's love songs, noting the connection he establishes between music and emotion.]
Robert Burns' greatest songs rank with the finest in Europe, such as the best German lieder. Perhaps a fifth of Burns' 350 songs, including some of his best, were love songs written about particular women. Considering that so many of his songs originated in affairs of the heart, it is not surprising that in August 1783 Burns wrote in his commonplace book: 'There is...
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SOURCE: "Dialect and Diction in Burns," in A Burns Companion, Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd., 1991, pp. 79-88.
[In this essay, Bold contends that Burns's poems written in the Scots dialect are superior to those he wrote in English.]
In a book generally dismissive of Scots as a literary language, Edwin Muir suggested that when he 'wished to express his real judgement [Burns] turned to English' (Edwin Muir, Scott and Scotland, 1936). Muir's supposition that, for Burns, Scots was 'a language for sentiment but not for thought' simply ignores the evidence of Burns's poetry in pursuit of the argument that, since the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,...
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SOURCE: "Robert Burns (1759-96)," in A Handbook to English Romanticism, edited by Jean Raimond and J.R. Watson, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 42-44.
[Low has edited two well-regarded books on Burns, Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage (1974) and Critical Essays on Robert Burns (1975). In the following essay, he provides a brief overview of Burns's career as a poet.]
Robert Burns, the eldest son of a tenant farmer in Ayrshire, Scotland, grew up to a life of hard physical work, poverty, and acute awareness of social disadvantage. It was to find 'some kind of counterpoise' to this harsh set of circumstances, and to amuse himself by transcribing 'the various...
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