Article abstract: Burns, writing his poetry and songs at the culmination of Scottish cultural tradition, made a major contribution to preserving Scottish culture, especially the folk song; his universal human appeal made him an internationally recognized as well as an intensely national poet.
Legend has it that there was a severe storm on the night of Robert Burns’s birth. Certainly the poet himself encouraged the legend, and took it as emblematic of his later vicissitudes in life. Although his father, William Burnes (as he spelled it), was a man of character and intelligence, even writing a pamphlet of theological instruction in the form of a dialogue between father and son, he was not a successful farmer. The family went through a series of moves and endured humiliating poverty and debt.
Even in such straitened circumstances, Burns’s education was not completely neglected. Statutes for universal education had been initiated by John Knox and the Reformation, so that all could read the Scriptures, but the actual schooling provided usually fell woefully short of the ideal. Often families made their own arrangements, giving the teacher board and a small stipend. William Burnes, with several other neighbors, employed William Murdoch, who was to remain for two and a half years. Burns had three brothers and three sisters, of whom Gilbert Burns (1769-1827) was closest to the poet. Later, Burns spent three weeks with Murdoch, polishing his English and learning enough French to continue reading and studying the language, and he was always an avid reader. Among his favorite poets were Alexander Pope and William Shenstone. Clearly Burns was far from being the “Heaven-taught ploughman” that his first critics perceived, a legend which he himself encouraged.
The Scottish attitude toward literacy also meant that Burns’s potential readers were not entirely limited to an educated elite. Broadsides, chap-books, and collections of songs were among the popular entertainment, and there was a flourishing oral tradition. An “old maid” of his mother (actually a widowed aunt who occasionally lived with them) fired his imagination with songs and legends. Early in his life, Burns began to write verses. In 1774, when he was fifteen, he wrote “Handsome Nell” for Nelly Kirkpatrick, whom he courted at harvest time, and, as he said, “Thus with me began Love and Poesy.” From that time, Burns thought of himself as a poet.
A poet, however, must usually find another means of earning a living. In the summer of 1775, Burns’s attempt to learn surveying and mathematics was not successful. In 1777, the family moved again, to Lochlie farm in Tarbolton parish. There Burns enjoyed the society of the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club, which he had helped to organize; he probably wrote the group’s constitution. In the winter of 1781-1782, he and a partner settled in Irvine in order to learn flax dressing, a venture which proved disastrous. Penniless, Burns returned to the farm; here he began his first commonplace book, containing poems and remarks regarding his poetic development. After his father’s death, in February, 1784, Burns and his brother Gilbert rented Mossgviel farm from Gavin Hamilton, a young lawyer who was sympathetic to Burns’s work. Shortly thereafter, Burns acquired the poems of Robert Fergusson, a promising Edinburgh poet whose poems greatly influenced Burns.
Burns and Fergusson were both indebted to the Scottish literary tradition, which went back to William Dunbar, Robert Henryson, and James I of Scotland, author of “The Kingis Quair” (1423?). Before the departure of the court of James I of England and James VI of Scotland for London in 1603, Scots had flourished as a literary language. Scots and the dialect of Northern England (Anglian) were virtually identical; the London dialect of Geoffrey Chaucer had not yet developed into standard English. There was no Scottish equivalent of the King James Bible to provide a widespread and influential example of cultured Scots, and it is somewhat ironic that one of the major influences in unifying English bore the name of a Scottish monarch. After the departure of the court and the onset of the Reformation, Scotland itself was divided both in language and religion between the predominantly Roman Catholic Gaelic-speaking Highlands and the predominantly Scots-speaking Protestant Lowlands. Yet Scottish literature continued to flourish through the seventeenth century, in many traditional forms, including what is now called the Burns stanza but earlier was known as Standard Habbie, six lines rhyming aaabab, the first, second, third, and fifth lines in tetrameter and the fourth and sixth lines in dimeter. Burns used it to great effect in poems widely different in mood and tone, such as “To a Mouse” and “Address to the Deil.”
Burns was a careful craftsman, both in his verse forms and in his use of the Scots vernacular, choosing words carefully for poetic effect. Critics differ as to whether Burns was speaking a particular dialect of Scots or attempting to reproduce the spirit of the vernacular rather than a literal representation of a specific local speech. Scotsmen spoke both languages, using the more formal English for communication in business, law, theology, and philosophy, and Scots for casual conversation, song, and some poetry.
For Burns, the year 1785 was a landmark year for both Love and Poesy. In that year, Elizabeth, Burns’s daughter by Elizabeth Paton, was born; Burns wrote “A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter.” He then began courting Jean Armour and writing, among other poems, the epistles to Davie and Lapraik; “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” not published until after his death, a devastating satire of Calvinist piety and hypocrisy; and “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” the poem most admired by his contemporaries for its elevated use of the English language and its moral tone. Although Armour was now pregnant, the family refused to let her marry Burns, and he, discouraged with both his personal situation and his professional prospects, planned to emigrate to the West Indies. In need of passage money, Burns decided to publish his poetry. Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, now usually referred to as the Kilmarnock edition, was printed in July, 1786, by John Wilson of Kilmarnock. The edition of six hundred copies sold out in a month. In September, Armour gave birth to twins, Robert and Jean, and in November Burns left for Edinburgh, to seek his fortune in the capital and to try to bring out another edition of the poems.
The impact of this small volume of thirty-six poems was remarkable, considering that it was written predominantly in Scots by an unknown provincial poet. Despite, or perhaps in part because, of the sudden departure of Parliament from the capital with the union of England and Scotland in 1707, the Scottish Enlightenment which flourished in the eighteenth century became an intellectual force recognized both in England and in Europe, its major figures writing in polished English. Most critics maintained that Scots was an unsuitable language for literature. By the time Burns reached Edinburgh, the Enlightenment was in a state of transition. David Hume (1711-1776) was dead and Adam Smith (1723-1790) aged and ill, and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a sixteen-year-old boy who was later to write of his...
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