Robert Burns Robert Burns Poetry: British Analysis

Start Your Free Trial

Download Robert Burns Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Robert Burns Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

To an extraordinary degree, Robert Burns is the poet of Scotland, a Scotland that—despite its union with England—remained for him and his readers a totally independent cultural, intellectual, social, and political entity. Undoubtedly, Burns will always be identified exclusively with Scotland, with its peculiar life and manners communicated to the outside world through its distinctive dialect and fierce national pride. He justly deserves that identification, for he not only wrote about Scottish life and manners but also sought his inspiration from Scotland—from his own Ayrshire neighborhood, from its land and its people.

Influence of Scotland

Scotland virtually drips from the lines of Burns’s poetry. The scenes of the jocular “Jolly Beggars” have their source in Poosie Nansie’s inn at Mauchline, while the poet and Tam O’Shanter meet the witches and the warlocks at midnight on the very real, local, and familiar Alloway Kirk. Indeed, reality obscures even the boldest attempts at erudite romanticism. Burns alludes to actual persons, to friends and acquaintances whom he knew and loved and to whom he dedicated his songs. When he tried his hand at satire, he focused upon local citizens, identifying specific personages or settling for allusions that his eighteenth century Scottish readers would easily recognize. In “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”—which features a clear portrait of his own father—the poet reflects his deep attachment to and sincere pride in the village of Alloway and the rural environment of Ayrshire. He viewed the simple scenes in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” as the real essence of Scotland’s heritage. Burns began with a sincere love and respect for his neighbors, and he sustained that attitude throughout his life and his work. Without the commitment to Scotland, he never would have conquered the hearts of its native readers or risen to become the acknowledged national poet of the land north of the Tweed.

Burns’s poetry gained almost immediate success among all classes of the Scottish population. He knew of what he wrote, and he grasped almost immediately the living tradition of Scottish poetry, assimilating the qualities of that tradition into his own verse forms and distinct subject matter. For example, the stanzaic forms in such poems as “To a Mouse” (and its companions) had been in existence for more than three hundred years. Burns early had become familiar with the Scottish Chaucerians (John Major, James I of Scotland, Henryson, Dunbar, Douglas, Sir David Lyndsay) and the folk poets closer to his own day (Ramsay, James Macpherson, Fergusson); he took the best from their forms and content and made them his own. Thus, he probably could not be termed an “original” poet, although he had to work hard to set the tone and style to his readers’ tastes. His countrymen embraced his poetry because they found the cadence, the music, and the dialect to be those of their own hearts and minds. The vigor and the deep love may have been peculiar to Burns, but the remaining qualities had existed longer than anyone could determine.

Still, writing in the relatively remote confines of Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century, Burns was not totally alien to the neoclassical norm of British letters. If Alexander Pope or Henry Fielding or Tobias Smollett could focus upon reality and write satires to expose the frailties of humankind, so could Burns be both realistic and satiric. In his most forceful poems—such as “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” “The Holy Fair,” and “Address to the Unco Guid”—he set out to expose the religious hypocrites of his day, but at the same time to portray, clearly and truthfully, both the beautiful and the ugly qualities of Scottish life and character. Burns’s poetry may not always be even in quality or consistent in force, but it certainly always conveys an air of truthfulness.

If Burns’s poetry reverberates with the remoteness of rural Scotland, it is...

(The entire section is 3,192 words.)