Study Guide

Tam O'Shanter

by Robert Burns

Tam O'Shanter Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Tam O’Shanter” was a favorite with Burns, who described the work in a letter to Mrs. Dunlop (April 11, 1791): “I look on Tam O’Shanter to be my standard performance in the poetical line.” He goes on to say that his “spice of roguish waggery” shows a “force of genius and a finishing polish that I despair of ever excelling.” The idea for the story came from several legends popular in the neighborhood of the poet’s birthplace, which is within a mile of Alloway Kirk (church). One of Burns’s friends, Francis Grose, sent him a prose account of the legend, one upon which Burns probably drew. If a reader compares the flat style of Grose with Burns’s jolly version, then he or she can better assess the poet’s talent. The conclusion of Grose’s narrative is as follows: “the unsightly tailless condition of the vigorous steed was, to the last hour of the noble creature’s life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers not to stay too late in Ayr markets.” Burns’s rendering is: “Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,/ Each man and mother’s son take heed;/ Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,/ Think! ye may buy the joys o’er dear;/ Remember Tam O’Shanter’s mare.”

Tam himself may have been based loosely upon the character of Douglas Graham, whose father was a tenant at the farm of Shanter on the Carrick shore. Noted for his habits of drunkenness, Graham was, like Burns’s hero, afflicted with a scolding wife....

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Tam O'Shanter Bibliography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bentman, Raymond. Robert Burns. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Carruthers, Gerard. Robert Burns. Tavistock, Devon, England: Northcote House, 2006.

Crawford, Thomas. Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1960.

Daiches, David. Robert Burns and His World. London: Thames & Hudson, 1971.

Ferguson, John DeLancey. Pride and Passion: Robert Burns, 1759-1796. 1939. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

Grimble, Ian. Robert Burns: An Illustrated Biography. New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1986.

Lindsay, John Maurice. The Burns Encyclopaedia. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.

McGuirk, Carol. Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

McGuirk, Carol, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Burns. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.

McIlvanney, Liam. Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell, 2002.

Stewart, William. Robert Burns and the Common People. New York: Haskell House, 1971.