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 because he found the perfect poetic environment for the universal themes of his works. In 1803, William Wordsworth stood beside his grave and contemplated “How Verse may build a princely throne/ On humble truth.” The throne was carved out of Burns’s understanding of the most significant theme of his time—the democratic spirit (which helps to explain Wordsworth’s tribute). Throughout, the Scottish bard salutes the worth of pure “man,” the man viewed outside the context of station or wealth. Certainly, Burns was sensitive to the principles and causes that spawned the revolutions in America and in France; in fact, closer to home, the Jacobite rebellion sparked by the landing of the Young Pretender from France had occurred only nine years before the poet’s birth. By nature, he was a political liberal, and his poems take advantage of every opportunity for humans or beasts to cry for freedom. Again, it was Wordsworth who identified Burns as a poet of the literary revolution—Romanticism—that later rushed through the open gates and into the nineteenth century.

Poetic qualities

Few will question that, ultimately, Burns’s strength as a poet is to be found in the lyrical quality of his songs. That quality simply stood far above his other virtues—his ability to observe and to penetrate until he discovered the essence of a particular subject, his skill in description and satire, and his striving to achieve personal and intellectual independence. In his songs, he developed the ability to record, with the utmost ease, the emotions of the common people of whom he wrote. Burns’s reliance on native Scottish tradition was both a limitation and a strength. For example, although he genuinely enjoyed the poetry of James Thomson (1700-1748), the Edinburgh University graduate who ventured to London and successfully challenged the artificiality of English poetry, Burns could not possibly have written a Scottish sequel to The Seasons (1730, 1744). Instead, he focused upon the simple Scottish farmer, upon the man hard at work and enjoying social relationships, not upon the prevalent eighteenth century themes of solitude and retirement. In Burns, then, the reader sees strong native feeling and spontaneous expression, the source of which was inherited, not learned.

Another quality of Burns’s poetry that merits attention is his versatility, the range of human emotions that exists throughout his verse. He could function as a satirist, and he could sound the most ardent notes of patriotism. His humor was neither vulgar nor harsh, but quiet, with considerable control—as in “Address to the Deil,” “To a Mouse,” and “To a Mountain Daisy.” As a lover, as one who obviously loved to love and be loved, he wrote lyrical pieces that could capture the essence of human passion. The lyric forms allowed for the fullest expression of his versatility, most of which came about during the last ten years of his relatively short life.

Capturing national spirit

From 1787 until his death in the summer of 1796, Burns committed himself to steady literary activity. He became associated with James Johnson, an uneducated engraver and enthusiastic collector and publisher of Scottish songs. From 1787 to 1804, Johnson gathered those songs into a five-volume Scots Musical Museum, and Burns served as his principal editor. Then the poet became associated with George Thomson, whose Select Collection of Scottish Airs reached six volumes between 1793 and 1811. Burns’s temperament seemed suited to such a combination of scholarly activity and poetic productivity, but he never accepted money for his contributions. The writing, rewriting, and transformation of some three hundred old songs and ballads would serve as his most singular gift to his nation. In...

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