Since the first publication of Robert Burns’s verse in the famous Kilmarnock edition entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, the poet’s fame has increased and spread. Other editions of his work, containing later poems, only enhanced his reputation. Unlike many writers who achieve early fame only to see it fade, Burns is still widely read and appreciated.
At least part of the reason for this continuing appreciation is that Burns was essentially a transitional figure between the eighteenth century neoclassicists and the Romantics who were soon to follow. Possessing some of the qualities of each school, he exhibits few of the excesses of either. He occasionally used the couplet that had been made a skillful tool by Alexander Pope and his followers, but his spirit was closer to the Romantics in his attitude toward life and his art.
Although Burns occasionally displayed a mild conservatism, as in the early “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” he was fundamentally a rebel, and rebellion is a basic trait of the Romantics. It would have been hard for Burns to be a true neoclassicist because his background, which figures constantly in his poems, simply did not suit him for this role. He had a hard early life and a close acquaintanceship with the common people and the common circumstances of life. He was certainly not the uneducated, “natural” genius that he is sometimes pictured as—having had good instruction from his father and a tutor and having done considerable reading on his own—but he lacked the classical education that earlier poets thought necessary for the writing of true poetry.
Like the neoclassicists, however, Burns was skillful in taking the ideas and forms of earlier poets—in Burns’s case, the Scottish poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, as well as the anonymous composers of ballads and folk songs—and treating them in his own individual way. Thus, his verse has a wide variety of stanza forms and styles. Despite the variety of his techniques, his basic outlook in his poems is remarkably consistent. This outlook also may have a great deal to do with his popularity. Perhaps more than any other poet since Geoffrey Chaucer, Burns possessed the genial personal insight and the instinct for human feelings that can make a poem speak to everyone. Burns always saw the human aspect of things. His nature poetry, for instance, marks a departure from the intellectualizing of the eighteenth century poets; Burns’s lines about nature treat it primarily as a setting in which people live.
The warmth of Burns’s verse arises from this humane attitude combined with the experience he had of being in close personal contact with the people about whom he wrote. His writing never deals with subjects that he did not know intimately. Burns loved several women and claimed that they each served as great poetic inspiration. The reader may well believe this statement when he or she encounters the simple and lucidly sincere poems “Highland Mary,” “Mary Morison,” and the well-known song “Sweet Afton.” It was this quality of sincerity that another great Scot, Thomas Carlyle, found to be Burns’s greatest poetic value.
Burns was not an original thinker, but he had a few strong convictions about religion, human freedom, and morality. His condemnation of Calvinism and the hypocrisy it bred is accomplished with humor and yet with sharpness in two of his best poems, “The Holy Fair” and the posthumously published “Holy Willie’s Prayer.” In these and several other poems, Burns pokes occasionally none-too-gentle fun at the professional religionists of his time. Burns’s intensely personal viewpoint saved him from preaching, as was the style of earlier versifiers. It is to be expected that the few poems that contain examples of his rare attempts to be lofty are unsuccessful.
Having grown up in a humble environment, Burns was especially sensitive to social relations and the value of human freedom and equality. On this...
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