Burns, Robert (Vol. 29)
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
(The entire section is 60 words.)
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 universality broader and more general, though not necessarily deeper, than that of any other sort; it will tend to mirror, not what the best or the cleverest men have seen and felt, but what the overwhelming majority of our species have met with during, let us say, the last five thousand years. There is nothing more international than nationality, nothing more all-embracing than locality.
Nevertheless, a writer like Burns is faced with certain pitfalls; in his rendering of the life of the parish, he will often be tempted to be too narrowly particular, too minutely realistic, too restricted to the vernacular, too faithful to the customs and idiosyncrasies of his district. If he wishes to reach a larger audience than the men of...
(The entire section is 6129 words.)
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 size, and were written by the same author. In their own tiny way they are masterpieces of wit and charm. I think the poem about the little mouse might just conceivably have been composed by several other poets, but I do not believe that anybody else in the world at that time could have produced an address to a louse and filled it, in spite of its repulsive subject, so full of grace and sympathy.
The poet was Robert Burns. The pieces are his ode 'To a Mouse,' which he published when he was twenty-six, and his ode 'To a Louse,' produced in the following year. Not many of us know the complete poems nowadays, because they are written in southern Scottish dialect, and in old-fashioned dialect which is now opaque even to the...
(The entire section is 2241 words.)
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 to the genre, a group of poems which, taken together, represent the last brilliant flowering and culmination of the Christis Kirk tradition. These poems were all composed in the years 1785 and 1786, the period of Burns's greatest creativity, as follows: "A Mauchline Wedding" (August, 1785), "Hallowe'en" (November, 1785), "The Jolly Beggars" (ca. November, 1785), "The Ordination" (ca. November, 1785), "The Holy Fair" (autumn, 1785), and "A Dream" (June, 1786). Three of these, "A Mauchline Wedding," "The Ordination," and "A Dream," may be treated briefly.
"Mauchline Wedding" seems to have been Burns's earliest experiment in the Christis Kirk genre. He enclosed the manuscript of this fragment in a letter to...
(The entire section is 4232 words.)
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 early nineteenth century usually looked not to him for illustrations of their comic theories but rather to Jean Paul Richter, who had obligingly translated his own precepts into creative examples. Not until after many of the speculations about humor had crystallized into definite concepts could Burns's achievement be fully analyzed. Just as his poetry had unwittingly sanctioned in advance many of the tenets enunciated in Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), so too his portrayals of comic love anticipated theories of subsequent analysts and, consequently, have become increasingly meaningful in the light of critical doctrines articulated after his practice.
As Romantic critics saw it, the dichotomy between...
(The entire section is 7094 words.)
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 course, by trying to think of something knotty about which to be clever, but the lines from Burns which I have quoted, and which are often in my mind, kept proposing themselves. I am fond of "A Red, Red Rose," and what we like, we like to talk about. Was there, however, anything much to be said about a poem so admirably simple? My curiosity obliged me to write what follows.
The first four lines of Burns's poem are often quoted as examples of simile, and the remaining quatrains could reasonably be searched, in a beginners' English class, for such other rhetorical devices as hyperbole. Except for these illustrative uses, however, the poem does not seem to invite analysis. What is being asserted is very plain; a man is...
(The entire section is 2205 words.)
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 moralizing English pieces apparently to increase the volume's appeal. And, it should be noted, although the subscribers and the presumed audience were to be almost entirely local, or at least Scottish, Burns added a liberal glossary of his Scots vocabulary. The 612 copies brought in £90, of which the printer's bill took £34/3/—; but Burns says that he cleared only £20. Perhaps the difference is accounted for partly by the £9 passage money for Jamaica which he paid down, and may have lost. His settlement with Betty Paton took a substantial amount, and he must have given some to the family at Mossgiel. Burns cannot have had much in his pocket when he set out for Edinburgh.
The Kilmarnock volume made Burns famous at...
(The entire section is 2429 words.)
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 his work. It seems, rather, to result from an assumption that Burns is not in a British tradition. He is ignored because he is considered either to be in a purely Scottish tradition or to be one of those rare poets who are in no tradition at all.
I submit that Burns figures in the major tradition of British poetry and is indeed significant in the transition from the style of poetry written in the early eighteenth century to the style of poetry written in the early nineteenth century. Burns considered himself a follower of the important British poets who preceded him. The important poets who followed Burns considered him an important predecessor of their own theories and practices. His language, while presenting certain...
(The entire section is 6227 words.)
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 vain. Too often we find ourselves lamenting the losses, not celebrating the gains, and feeling the pain rather than the balm….
Burns is commonly thought by the uninstructed to be—in the phrase applied by Milton to Shakespeare—"Fancy's child", ignorant and spontaneous, warbling his "native wood notes wild". This impression is mistaken, at best an oversimplification, at worst a gross error. Burns was heir not of one but of two different and sharply opposed traditions: the English literary tradition with which alone his formal education was concerned, and the Scottish literary tradition as he encountered it. Mr. [David] Daiches [in his Robert Burns and His World, 1972] briefly but cogently sketches the historical...
(The entire section is 1413 words.)
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 for introducing the West to both Chinese and Japanese classics. Below, Rexroth describes Burns as a rebel, attributing his frustration to the "conflict between his situation [as a working man] and his potential [as a well-educated man]."]
Robert Burns is a special case in the literature of the British Isles. He is one of the few writers prior to the twentieth century who was a working man. True, he was not a member of the proletariat, but a farmer. He has often been called a peasant poet. In fact his father was a yeoman who went bankrupt trying to establish himself as a moderately large-scale independent farmer. This is a very different background from that of the traditional highland Scottish shepherd or peasant...
(The entire section is 1593 words.)
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] in the Kilmarnock volume which show the full stature of Burns as a poet working in the Scots literary tradition' and a creation with 'revolutionary implications'; 'The Twa Dogs' is 'brisk, sharp-toned … with wit and point'; 'Address to the Deil' is 'effective' in that it 'blows up' the doctrine of original sin; 'The Ordination' is (again) 'effective', this time in 'the contrast between the form and the ostensible theme'; and 'Address of Beelzebub' is 'bitter and biting'. To Thomas Crawford [in his Burns, 1960], 'The Holy Tulzie' shows 'developing still further the technique used in … the "Epistle to John Rankine"—the apparent assumption of the standards, beliefs and language of the opposite party'; 'Holy Willie's Prayer' is...
(The entire section is 6331 words.)
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 Burns's most interesting and exciting characters. These are his young girls in love and particularly those who speak for themselves in the songs. Here Burns shows an extraordinary psychological insight into the feminine mind and as Christina Keith points out [in her The Russet Coat: A Critical Study of Burns' Poetry and of Its Background, 1956], at the time he wrote them he had "had great experience of girls, at any rate of the particular girl he had chosen as his type". These girls display a considerable amount of independence, of self-confidence, of self-knowledge, and of knowledge of the world. Their world is love, and love exclusively, but into this world they grow and through love they grow, from the first stage of girlhood and...
(The entire section is 9382 words.)
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 birth; as a poet and songwright he followed the example of earlier writers while being influenced simultaneously by the oral literary forms which flourished in the milieu of his birth.
The stress on Burns's literary sources is a natural and explicable one: those who study Burns as literary historians and critics see him and his work through the dimension of time and often in comparison with other written work—the tangible records of the artistic endeavors of the past; and he does seem to have been the culmination of the Scottish literary tradition and to have profited greatly from exposure to English literature. Burns himself lauded various of his predecessors and tried, in so much as was possible, to read the best of past...
(The entire section is 2733 words.)
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 prologues and fragments, descriptions, epigrams, dialogues, and dramatic monologues.
No one, I believe, would place Burns among the narrative poets. Including 'Tam o' Shanter', there are barely a handful of poems Burns himself thought of as 'a true story' or 'a tale'. My present purpose is not to challenge the established view. Yet Burns's 'occasional' poems do make use of a variety of narrative techniques; and in this essay I intend to examine some of these poems in terms of narrative kind and structure.
The first task in such an undertaking is to establish a definition of narrative, momentarily omitting from the general description considerations of genre and tone. I am concerned here only with fictitious...
(The entire section is 5839 words.)
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 detachment:
"Tam o' Shanter" itself, which enjoys so high a favour, does not appear to us, at all decisively, to come under this last category [of Burns's melodious, aerial, poetical poems]. It is not so much a poem, as a piece of sparkling rhetoric; the heart and body of the story still lies hard and dead. He has not gone back, much less carried us back, into that dark, earnest, wondering age … he does not attempt, by any new-modelling of his supernatural ware, to strike anew that deep mysterious chord of human nature, which once responded to such things.
Carlyle's objection to Burns's "cold" treatment of supernatural themes is essentially that of a Romantic throwing off...
(The entire section is 4475 words.)
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.]
(The entire section is 6250 words.)
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 G. Scott Wilson ["Robert Burns: The Image and the Verse-epistles," in The Art of Robert Burns, edited by R.D.S. Jack and Andrew Noble, 1982]. Weston views the epistles of Ramsay and Hamilton, Fergusson, and Burns in terms of a distinct sub-genre—the Scots verse-epistle—whose conventions Burns inherited and utilized for the purposes of creating a self-portrait. Wilson, more narrowly, views Burns's epistles strictly in terms of the financial and psychological motives behind the poet's image-making. In addition to these studies, I offer a thematic and structural analysis of Burns's first published epistles in the hope that it will shed additional light on his artistic purposes, achievements and shortcomings in this special and...
(The entire section is 4208 words.)
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 certainly some connection between Love, and Music & Poetry'. This essay will analyse five love songs in order to sample the artistry of Burns and gain insight into his remarkable fusion of words, music and personal emotion.
Our first love song shows how the double tonic of the music reinforces the verbal dialogue of the words. Our second selection has a relatively simple text, almost never anthologised; yet, in combination with the music, it becomes one of the finest of Burns' love songs. The third song shows the use of alliterative phonesthemes that combine with the music to create an almost physical sense of love in a river landscape. The fourth song exemplifies Burns' gift for adapting dance tunes, in this case that...
(The entire section is 6075 words.)
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, the Scottish people had felt in Scots and thought in English. Muir's patronising remarks about Burns's Scots verse are as crass as those the poet had to put up with in his lifetime, as an anecdote illustrates.
On 1 February 1787 the 11th Earl of Buchan, David Erskine, wrote to Burns about the Kilmarnock Edition, praising 'These little doric pieces of yours in our provincial dialect'. As usual, Burns was not above 'kissing the arse of a peer' (as he accused the Douglas brothers of doing in his 'Ballad Second: The Election'), and replied in the humble role he had assumed: 'I must return to my rustic station, and, in my wonted way, woo my rustic Muse at the Ploughtail'. In August 1791 Lord Buchan again wrote to Burns,...
(The entire section is 3031 words.)
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 feelings, the loves, the griefs, the hopes, the fears, in his own breast', that he began to write poetry. By his mid-twenties he displayed exceptional mastery of both satire and lyric in Lowland Scots. In the summer of 1786, when he was on the point of abandoning farming in Scotland and emigrating to the West Indies, he published his first collection of poems, in an edition of 612 copies printed in the country town of Kilmarnock. Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect met with such success that he changed all his plans, and journeyed to Edinburgh, where he was enthusiastically welcomed by a number of leading literary figures, partly because the quality of his work appeared to confirm current primitivist theories of genius. Among them...
(The entire section is 831 words.)
Brown, Mary Ellen. Burns and Tradition. London: Macmillan Press, 1984, 176 p.
Explores Burns's use of traditional content, form, and style in his works, stating that he "became and continues to be a figure in the Scottish legendary and customary tradition."
Daiches, David. "Calvinism and the Poetic Imagination: From Burns to Hogg, Problems of Antinomianism." In his God and the Poets: The Gifford Lectures, 1983, pp. 133-52. London: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Outlines the effect of eighteenth-century religious beliefs on Burns's poetry.
Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. "Burns, Blake, and the Recovery of Lyric." Studies in Romanticism 21, No. 4 (Winter 1982): 637-60.
Traces the history of the lyric and its use by several poets, particularly Burns and William Blake.
Davison, Edward. "Robert Burns." The Literary Review 13, No. 4 (Summer 1970): 475-79.
Assesses Burns's popularity.
Donaldson, William. "The Glencairn Connection: Robert Burns and Scottish Politics, 1786-1796." In Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XVI, edited by G. Ross Roy, pp. 61-79. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.
(The entire section is 433 words.)