Robert Burns 1759–1796
(Born Robert Burnes) Scottish poet and lyricist.
The following entry contains critical essays on Burns's relationship to Preromanticism. For further information on Burns, see LC, vols. 3 and 29.
The national poet of Scotland, Burns is revered as the "heaven-taught ploughman" who expressed the soul of a nation in the language of the common man and sang of universal humanity. Burns worked on more than three hundred songs, and it is largely due to his revival of the lyric that he is considered a Preromantic. He made the Scots dialect acceptable in elevated, serious 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. His frank expression of his love for women, drink, and bawdy lyrics contributed to his image as a natural man, honest and spontaneous. Burns is admired for his compassion, which extended even to the lowliest animals, his humor, his patriotism, and his fervent championship of the innate freedom and dignity of humanity. In present times Burns's works remain an important part of the popular culture of Scotland, and his "Auld Lang Syne" is sung around the world every New Year's Eve.
Burns was born in Alloway, near Ayr in southwestern Scotland, to an impoverished tenant farmer and his illiterate wife. Although Burns was largely self-taught, he was not in reality the "noble savage" some later biographers made him out to be. Burns received formal schooling whenever possible, and it was during a three-year period of regular attendance in a one-room schoolhouse, as a student of John Murdock, that Burns was exposed to a large body of English literature which included William Shakespeare, John Milton, the Augustans John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope (including his translation of Homer), and the Preromantics James Thomson, Thomas Gray, and William Shenstone. Further, Burns's father, William Burnes (whose famous son later altered the spelling of the family name), instructed him at home, and Burns ardently read any book he could borrow. Burns's family moved from one rented farm to another during his childhood, at each place enduring the hard work of farming in poor soil and suffering the extreme financial
difficulties exacerbated by high rents. Excessive toil during his childhood is blamed in part for Burns's eventual early death. At fifteen, Burns fell in love with a girl with whom he was working, and it was this love that caused Burns to first write a lyric. He later recalled this episode: "Among her other loveinspiring qualifications, she sung sweetly; and 'twas her favorite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme." Burns was to follow this method for his writing for the rest of his life. He would always hear a melody in his head while creating lyrics; never would the lyrics be set down first. Some of his poetry began to circulate in manuscript form in the early 1780s. By 1785 and 1786 Burns had written nearly all of his best poems, all of them in Scots. Burns credited the creation of his finest poetry, that dealing with country life, to the inspiration he gained from reading the Scottish vernacular poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. In 1786, with aid from friends, he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Published in the town of Kilmarnock, the edition was an overnight sensation and quickly sold out. The second edition, published in Edinburgh the following year, brought critical acclaim and fame to Burns. It was in this city that, for a season, Burns was feted and much admired by the literati and the doctors, lawyers, and dignitaries of the city. Some scholars argue that Burns's reputation as a self-taught peasant led him to a dead end; Burns could not grow while attempting to match the image expected of him. It is only "Tarn o' Shanter," his later narrative masterpiece, that makes this argument difficult. The latter part of Burns's creative career was devoted to collecting and revising the vast body of Scottish folk songs transmitted orally from generation to generation—work that continued, legend has it, to the last moments of his life. Although Burns was badly in need of money, he refused any payment for his work, considering his efforts to be his patriotic duty to Scotland. In 1796, at the age of 37, Burns died from rheumatic heart disease.
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 "For A' That and 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." "Holy Willie's Prayer" 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. Burns's many love poems and songs touchingly express the human experience of love in all its phases: the sexual love of "The Fornicator"; the more mature love of "A Red, Red Rose"; the happiness of a couple grown old together in "John Anderson, My Jo." Whatever the subject, critics find in Burns's verses a riotous celebration of life, an irrepressible joy in living. Burns's 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 the 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. In 1787 Burns met James Johnson, the editor of The Scots Musical Museum. This meeting set off Burns's enthusiasm (he referred to himself as "absolutely craz'd" over the prospect) for restoring, recovering, and collecting old folk songs of Scotland, an ambitious task that was to occupy Burns for the rest of his life. According to James Kinsley, Burns "assimilated the whole musical tradition of Scotland, going over the airs till he discovered their character, their mood, and their potentiality as settings for songs." Burns also wrote many verse epistles. Although each was addressed to only one correspondent, it was understood that members of a select circle would hear at least some of the content, and that much of this content would also reach Burns's opponents. Thus these writings were both private and semi-public. Not collected until after Burns's death, the verse epistles are invaluable for their revelations of Burns's innermost hopes and fears and for their wide range of expression.
Although the initial publication of Burns's poems in 1786 was immensely successful, critics were soon to write more on what they considered to be Burns's moral defects (he had been arrested as a fornicator) than on his verses. In 1808 Francis Jeffrey attacked Burns as being contemptuous of prudence and decency, although he continued in the same review to assert that Burns was a "great and original genius." Sentimental poems such as "The 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 opposing views, with some of Burns's more sentimental writings being taken as bathetic and false. Burns's English and primarily-English verses have long been found disappointing, with many critics calling them badly imitative and urging that they be completely ignored. Burns himself acknowledged that he lacked the command of English that he had for his native tongue. Other critics find that Burns's combination of two dialects results in an intriguing synthesis as many times two different meanings for a given word add depth to the poem in question. Burns spelled many words in English to reflect Scots pronunciation, and this can lead to confusion over the exact proportion of the two dialects. Although the epistles are not Burns's most important works, G. Scott Wilson has asserted that: "The verse-epistles which Burns wrote between 1784 and 1786 are, with the possible exception of Pope's Horatian epistles, the finest examples of the style in Scots or English." Stopford A. Brooke has written that Burns's intellectual genius was most displayed in his outspoken wit. "In satire of this kind—the fierce, stinging, witty, merciless satire, the naked mockery, the indignant lash—he stands alone. No one has ever done the same kind of thing so well—and those who felt the whip deserved it." In addition to lauding Burns as a poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson praised him as having struck more telling blows against false theology than Martin Luther.