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...
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