Robert Burns 1759–1796
(Born Robert Burnes) Scottish poet and lyricist.
The following entry provides critical essays on Burns, published from 1960 through 1992. For further information, see LC, Volume 3.
Called the national poet of Scotland, Burns has attained an almost mythical stature not only in his native land but around the world. He is revered as the poet of "the common man," the "heaven-taught ploughman" who expressed the soul of a nation and sang of universal humanity. His work made acceptable for the first time the use of the Scots dialect in elevated poetry, and his depiction of rural Scottish life and manners marked a radical departure from the stately and decorous subjects typical of eighteenth-century poetry. Burns is admired for his naturalness, compassion, humor, and fervent championship of the innate freedom and dignity of humanity.
Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire to an impoverished tenant farmer and his wife. Although he received little formal schooling, his father, William Burnes (whose famous son later altered the spelling of the family name), was an intelligent man who sought to provide his sons with as much education as possible. He managed to employ a tutor for young Robert and his brother Gilbert, and this, together with Burns's extensive reading, furnished the poet with an adequate knowledge of English literature; it was only later that he discovered and studied the Scottish poetry of his heritage. Burns's family moved from one rented farm to another during his childhood, at each place enduring hard work and financial difficulties. While a young man, Burns acquired a reputation for charm and wit, and began to indulge in numerous love affairs. In 1786, he pledged to marry Jean Armour, who had become pregnant. Her parents forbade the match, but demanded financial restitution from Burns. Angry at this rejection by the Armours, and hurt by what he deemed the too-ready capitulation of their daughter to their demands, Burns resolved to sail to Jamaica to start a new life. The plan never materialized, however, for that year his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published in Kilmarnock. The volume catapulted Burns to sudden, remarkable, but short-lived, fame; upon its success he went to Edinburgh, where for a season he was feted and much admired by the literati, though he remained in relative obscurity for the rest of his life. In the meantime, he was still involved with Jean Armour, who again became pregnant, and whom he was finally able to marry in 1788. Burns carried on his dual professions of poet and tenant farmer until the next year when he obtained a post in the
excise service. It was not an office for which he was particularly well suited, nor one which he enjoyed, but it freed him from the labor of farming. Most of Burns's major poems, with the notable exception of "Tam o'Shanter," had been written by this point in his life; the latter part of his creative career was devoted to collecting and revising the vast body of existing Scottish folk songs. In 1796, at the age of 37, Burns died from rheumatic heart disease, apparently caused by excessive physical exertion and frequent undernourishment as a child.
While the theme of freedom—political, religious, personal, and sexual—dominates Burns's poetry and songs, the themes of love and fellowship also recur. The poem beginning "Is there, for honest poverty," generally referred to by its refrain, "A man's a man for a' that," is an implicitly political assertion of Burns's beliefs in equality and freedom. His outrage over what he considered the false and restricting doctrine of the Scottish church is clear in such satirical poems as "Holy Willie's Prayer" and "The Holy Fair." The first of these concerns a self-professed member of the elect, who through his own narration inadvertently exposes his hypocrisy and ethical deficiencies. "The Holy Fair," a lively, highly descriptive account of a religious gathering, contrasts the dour, threatening view of life espoused by the Calvinist preachers with the reality of life as it is actually lived. The simple celebrants, after dutifully and respectfully attending to the sermons, continue their pleasurable everyday pursuits—the enjoyment of conviviality, drink, and romance, which are ever present in Burns's work. "Scotch Drink," a rousing drinking song, celebrates the joys of love and friendship. The title of "The Jolly Beggars" indicates Burns's attitude toward the main characters of this cantata. Poor and disreputable as these jolly beggars are, they have found their personal freedom and happiness in living outside the mainstream of society. Burns's innumerable love poems and songs are acknowledged as touching expressions of the human experience of love in all its phases: the sexual love of "The Fornicator"; the more mature love of "My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose"; the happiness of a couple grown old together in "John Anderson, My Jo." Another frequently cited aspect of Burns's poetry is its vitality. Whatever his subject, critics find in his verses a riotous celebration of life, an irrepressible joy in living; Bonamy Dobrée has said that Burns "sang of life because he possessed so unusual, so shining a quantity of it." This vitality is often expressed through humor, which is prevalent in Burns's work, from the bawdy humor of "The Jolly Beggars" and the broad farce of "Tam o Shanter," to the irreverent mockery of "The Twa Dogs" and the sharp satire of "Holy Willie's Prayer." Burns's subjects and characters are invariably humble, their stories told against the background of the Scottish rural countryside. Although natural surroundings figure prominently in his work, Burns differed from succeeding Romantic poets in that he had little interest in nature itself, which in his poetry serves but to set the scene for human activity and emotion.
Although the initial publication of Burns's poems in 1786 was attended by immense popular approbation, eighteenth-century critics responded with more reserve. Sentimental poems such as "The Cottar's [or 'Cotter's'] Saturday Night" and "To a Mountain Daisy" received the most favorable attention; Burns's earthier pieces, when not actually repressed, were tactfully ignored: "The Jolly Beggars," now considered one of his best poems, was rejected for years on the ground that it was coarse and contained low subject matter. Although these assessments held sway until well into the nineteenth century, more recent critics have taken an opposing view. "The Cottar's Saturday Night," an idealized portrait of a poor but happy family, is today regarded as affectedly emotional and tritely moralizing. "To a Mountain Daisy," ostensibly occasioned by the poet's inadvertent destruction of a daisy with his plow, is now considered one of Burns's weakest poems. Like "The Cottar's Saturday Night," it is sentimental and contains language and images which contemporary critics find bathetic and false. "To a Mountain Daisy" is often compared to "To a Mouse," as the situations described in the poems are similar; the latter is the poet's address to a mouse he has disturbed with his plow. Most critics today believe that "To a Mouse" expresses a genuine emotion that the other poem lacks, and does so in more engaging language. Interestingly, "To a Mountain Daisy" was written primarily in standard English, while "To a Mouse" is predominantly in Scots; critical reaction to these two poems neatly encapsulates the debate over whether Burns's best work is in English or Scots. It has long been asserted as a general tenet that for Burns, English was the language of thought and Scots the language of emotion. Most modern critics have found this assessment of Burns's poetic bilingualism too simplistic, pointing out that few of Burns's poems are written entirely in English or in Scots. The pieces most commentators acknowledge as his best are those in which he judiciously mingled the two languages.