Britain in the eighteenth century wanted an unlettered poet, one who derived inspiration directly from nature rather than from books. Stephen Duck, the thresher poet patronized by Queen Caroline, filled this need in the 1730’s. Similarly, the fictional third century poet Ossian, largely the creation of James McPherson, enjoyed immense popularity in the latter half of the 1700’s and well into the 1800’s. Even before Robert Burns published his first volume of poems, he began calling himself a “bardie,” a diminutive of “bard,” reflecting his desire to cast himself in this mold of the untutored writer.
In a verse epistle to the Scottish poet John Lapraik that Burns wrote on April 1, 1785, “Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,/ That’s a’ the learning I desire.” Henry McKenzie in his magazine The Lounger praised Burns as a “Heaven-taught ploughman,” further fostering the image that the poet himself was cultivating in Edinburgh at the time. He even dressed the part, wearing boots rather than shoes to social events, just as Benjamin Franklin in Passy wore a coonskin cap to create the illusion that he was a provincial among sophisticates. Burns at that time struck the sixteen-year-old Sir Walter Scott as rustic and plain, as well as intelligent, dignified, and self-confident. While Burns did not attend college, he was not “fancy’s child warbling his native wood-notes wild,” any more than was William Shakespeare, about whom John Milton wrote those words. Robert Burns, Jr., noted that his father’s library contained the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Milton, Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, Molière, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Robert Crawford devotes much of The Bard to discussing the various literary influences that shaped Scotland’s best-known and most enduring native poet. Crawford observes that Burns’s poetic education began almost at his birth. His mother sang old Scottish songs to him, and his grandmother recited Scottish folktales. Burns remembered these later in life. He also recalled another relative, Betty Davidson, who had a vast stock of tales of the supernatural. Burns’s “Halloween” (1785) pictures a grandmother telling stories; “Address to the Deil” (1785) consists of a collection of folktales. Burns’s formal education began when he was six. Crawford shows how fortunate the future writer was to have eighteen-year-old John Murdoch as his tutor.
At school, Burns memorized works that stayed with him into adulthood. He read Arthur Masson’s Collection of English Prose and Verse (1781), which included works by the Scots James Thomson and John Home, whom Burns admired. After Burns left school to help his family work on their farm, Murdoch continued to supply the boy with books, including an English grammar and the poems of Alexander Pope. Burns’s early letters quote from Pope, who also supplied models for Burns’s letters in verse. Pope’s poetry provided the epigraphs for “Holy Willie’s Prayer” (1799) and “The Twa Herds: Or, The Holy Tulzie” (1784). In the summer of 1773, Burns spent a few weeks with Murdoch studying French. Burns returned home with a French dictionary and a copy of François Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque (1699; The Adventures of Telemachus, the Son of Ulysses, 1699). With these two books and Murdoch’s lessons, Burns taught himself to read French.
Burns’s father secured books from the Ayr Library Society, and Burns was a voracious reader. Nelly Miller, who dated Robert’s younger brother William, said that she always saw Robert with a book in his hand. Among the first works he read was William Hamilton’s Life and Heroic Actions of the Renown’d Sir William Wallace, General and Governor of Scotland (1722). One of Burns’s most famous poems begins, “Scots, what hae wi’ Wallace bled,” which adapts lines that Hamilton ascribed to...
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