Robert Burns

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3055

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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....

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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 rhymingaaabab, 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 meeting with his famous contemporary. Nevertheless, there were many less towering figures, including Henry Mackenzie, whose The Man of Feeling (1771) was immensely popular.

The Scottish political eclipse also generated an intense interest in Scotland’s past. One of Burns’s finest poems, “Tam o’Shanter,” was written at the request of an antiquary friend to accompany an illustration of Alloway Kirk. In general, Jacobite sympathies for the ill-fated Stuarts went with an interest in the glories of the Scottish past, and emphasis on English and the wider world of culture went with Whig or even Jacobin leanings, which did not, however, necessarily involve active support of the French Revolution. There were those, such as Burns, who combined an intense Scottish patriotism with a sympathy for the underdog, and managed to be Jacobite and Jacobin simultaneously. Many of Burns’s songs reflect the former influence. “The Jolly Beggars,” a “cantata” of poems and songs originally called “Love and Liberty,” and “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” stress freedom of action and the intrinsic worth of all human beings. In a subtler and more genial way, the first poem in the Kilmarnock edition, “The Twa Dogs,” a dialogue between a poor man’s dog and a rich man’s dog, expresses these sentiments. Other poems, such as his welcome for his daughter Elizabeth and “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” with its attack on a prominent church member, he suppressed. Religion was a very sensitive topic in Burns’s Scotland. The established Presbyterian church, or kirk, was divided between the Old Lights and the New Lights. It was not so much the complex theological disputes that involved Burns, but the social and sexual conservatism of the Old Lights. Both Burns and Armour, for example, had to confess their liaison in church and be reprimanded.

In Edinburgh, a combination of well-placed introductions, critical acclaim from Mackenzie, among others, and his compelling personality promptly made Burns the talk of the town. Because most of Edinburgh’s residents crowded into the Old Town, a medieval warren of multistory houses, in which rank determined how high up one lived, Edinburgh society was more open than that of London. There were numerous clubs for men, ranging through all classes and interests, and Burns was quickly made welcome. In addition, the publisher William Creech held a daily open house for members of the literary milieu.

Burns was shrewd enough to realize that interest in him was in part a result of his novelty and would soon wane, but now he took advantage of his situation to arrange for another edition of his poetry. Creech published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in April, 1787, with the addition of much new material, including some of the suppressions from the first edition. The use of the same title left many potential readers unaware of the substantial additions, though the editions did well enough to warrant a second Edinburgh edition and were issued with an impressive list of subscribers.

Before he left Edinburgh, Burns also met James Johnson, editor of The Scots Musical Museum, an important collection of Scottish songs, both words and music. Burns was eventually to produce more than two hundred songs for Johnson, some of which appeared in the first volume, published in May of 1787. Burns refused payment or credit for his work. In some cases, he made few changes in the songs, but some he rewrote extensively, some from one line, and some he wrote to fit music to which the words had been lost. Mastering the music before he began to write, Burns was extraordinarily sensitive in matching words to music, a point upon which all critics concur, though there is varying opinion on how much of the technical aspects of music Burns knew. Certainly he had mastered all the published material and, in his travels in Scotland in the fall of 1787 as well as at other times, he collected songs, both words and music.

Burns returned to Edinburgh in December, 1787, where he met Agnes M’Lehose (or McLehose), with whom he had an intense relationship, exchanging impassioned letters under the names of Sylvander and Clarinda. In March, 1788, however, Jean Armour again gave birth to twins, daughters who died within a few weeks. Burns left Edinburgh, leased Ellisland farm, near Dumfries, and married Armour in April, 1788. With a wife and family to support, Burns needed a more dependable source of income than either farming or poetry offered, and petitioned for a position in the Excise. Numerous products, both imported and domestic, were taxed, and the Excisemen rode circuit, collecting taxes for a given district. Combined with farming, the severe physical strain of riding miles in all sorts of weather aggravated the rheumatic fever Burns had had since his youth. Yet he continued to write, devoting himself to continuing the collection, restoration, and preservation of Scottish songs.

In 1791, Burns, more secure with a promotion in the Excise, was able to move to Dumfries, a pleasant small city. Without the arduous farm duties, he had more time to write and, in the city, more intellectual companionship. In 1792, he began to work on songs for George Thomson, editor of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, the first set of which was published in June, 1793. By September, 1795, Burns’s health began to decline seriously, and on July 21, 1796, he died. He wrote until the last: “O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast” for Jessie Lewars, who cared for him during his final weeks, and songs for the volume The Scots Musical Museum, which appeared after his death.


Robert Burns’s fame mirrors the conflict already noted in Scottish culture. On the one hand, he is the most intensely national of poets, claimed by Scots as their own. Even in the poorest household, there were likely to be two books—the Bible and Burns’s poems. On the other hand, the universality of feeling and the clarity of his songs and poems have made him a poet known and loved throughout the world. He has been translated into at least twenty-one languages, including Japanese and Russian. This very popularity, combined with an overemphasis on his numerous affairs, illegitimate children, and drinking bouts, has tended to influence his critics unduly. Until recently, all but the most discerning criticism has tended either to be sweepingly adulatory and sentimental, obscuring appreciation of his tremendous intelligence and wit, or to dismiss all but his Scottish poetry as inferior, or to find fault with his work on grounds of his personal irregularities. Burns’s earliest biographer, a temperance advocate, perpetuated the notion that Burns died of alcoholism. He evidently died of a heart condition related to his rheumatic fever, and his drinking was not excessive by the standards of the time. Of his relationships with women, contemporary critics have observed that there were conflicting forces at work. Passionate in all of his attachments, intellectual and physical, he was accepted by men who were his intellectual equals if social superiors, but he was not able to marry a woman who could have given him intellectual as well as physical companionship.

Now criticism is more likely to maintain a balance between attention to his life and to his work, always a difficulty because Burns is an intensely personal poet, and knowledge of his life and the times in which he wrote are essential to understanding him. In addition to being appreciated as a poet appealing to universal sentiments, Burns is recognized as a satirist and a humorist, as being well-read despite the limitations of his formal schooling, and, in the field of song, as a master. His place in world literature was well described by his first major European critic, Hans Hecht, as a “titanic fragment.”


Brown, Mary Ellen. Burns and Tradition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Relates Burns’s writings to the Scottish literary tradition. Assesses Burns as a collector of folk songs in relation to the eighteenth century antiquarian movement. Especially in dealing with Burns’s subsequent reputation, uses folklorist’s approach.

Burns, Robert. The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. Edited by James Kinsley, 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. A definitive edition with the poems and songs extensively annotated, arranged in chronological order. Melody lines given for the songs.

Butt, John. The Mid-Eighteenth Century. Edited and completed by Geoffrey Carnall. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. A brief but very useful chapter on Scottish poetry provides detailed background on the development of Scots as a literary language and Burns’s place in that tradition. Well-selected bibliography for authors discussed in text is appended.

Crawford, Thomas. Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1960. A detailed analysis of Burns’s poetry and songs, stressing the social and political milieu in which they were written. Emphasizes Burns’s wit and ideas.

Daiches, David. Robert Burns. New York: Rinehart and Co., 1950. Critical study of Burns by one of major Burns scholars. Much biographical and background material included.

Daiches, David. Robert Burns and His World. New York: Viking Press, 1972. A brief but very thorough account of Burns’s life and times. Sections placing him in the Scottish literary and social traditions are particularly useful. The atmosphere of Burns’s Scotland is well conveyed by the many well-chosen illustrations.

Dent, Alan. Burns in His Time. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1966. An attempt to counterbalance adulatory approach to Burns, perhaps too far in the opposite direction. Excellent on historical context, with detailed accounts of historical events and literary figures, quotes from contemporary newspapers and other sources.

Fitzhugh, Robert Tyson. Robert Burns: The Man and the Poet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970. Full-length biography including quotations from many of the poems, with Scots words translated in marginal glosses.

Hecht, Hans. Robert Burns: The Man and His Work. Foreword by Sir Patrick J. Dollan. Translated by Jane Lymburn. London: William Hodge and Co., 1936. The first major study of Burns by a European critic, originally published in Germany in 1919. Examines Burns from the perspective of his place in European as well as English literary history. Balanced in his assessment of the poet.

Lindsay, Maurice. Robert Burns: The Man, His Work, the Legend. London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1954. A well-written popular biography. Lacks bibliography and index. The introduction to the second edition has a good summary of Burns scholarship to 1967.

Low, Donald A. Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974. The introduction gives a historical overview of Burns criticism. The text includes a detailed selection of critical materials, beginning with Burns’s contemporaries and ending with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Low, Donald A., ed. Critical Essays on Robert Burns. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975. A collection of essays on Burns by modern scholars. The three essays on Burns as a songwriter and on his knowledge of music are of particular interest.

McGuirk, Carol. Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. A study of Burns’s work in the context of his literary contemporaries. McGuirk persuasively maintains that Burns’s flaws were a result not of his lesser skill in standard English but of the sentimentality of thought and diction shared in varying degrees by most eighteenth century poets. Good bibliography, arranged by topics.


Critical Essays