Robert Burns Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

ph_0111201524-Burns.jpg Robert Burns Published by Salem Press, Inc.

As a pure poet, Robert Burns had neither the time nor the desire for other literary forms. For The Scots Musical Museum, edited by James Johnson between 1787 and 1803, he wrote “Notes on Scottish Song,” wherein he tried to collect all the information he could about the poetic tradition of his native land. He suggested possibilities for authorship, identified the poems’ native regions and the occasions of their composition, cited fragments and verses of traditional songs, and set forth critical comments and engaging anecdotes.

Following the publication and success of the 1786 edition of his Poems, Burns set off on a series of trips that carried him over much of Scotland. Narratives of two of those journeys, Journal of a Tour in the Highlands Made in 1787 and Journal of the Border Tour, eventually found their way into print in 1834.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Robert Burns’s most significant poetry was written in what may loosely be termed Scots—the northern dialect of English spoken regularly by Scottish peasants and informally by Scottish gentry. When the poet attempted to write in standard eighteenth century British English, he came forth as a different person: stiff, conventional, and genteel, seemingly trying too hard to find his place within the poetic tradition of his day. No matter what the dialect, however, literary historians have termed Burns a “pre-Romantic,” a poet who anticipated William Wordsworth, gave new life to the English lyric, relied heavily upon literary forms and legends peculiar to the Scottish folk culture, and (certainly the most Wordsworthian quality of them all) wrote in the actual language of the common people. Few realize, however, that the pre-Romantic label is based primarily on Burns’s songs, while the bulk of his poetry was written in the forms favored by the majority of eighteenth century poets. He also wrote satire, verse epistles to friends and fellow poets, and even a variation on the mock-epic narrative (“Tam O’Shanter”). An argument could easily be advanced that Burns ranks as a first-rate practitioner of those forms.

Nevertheless, as a writer of satire, epistle, and mock-heroic, Burns does not belong entirely to the neoclassical mainstream which followed John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Oliver Goldsmith. With his dialect and intricate stanza forms, his...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What poetic habits of the eighteenth century does “pre-Romantic” Robert Burns share?

Cite a few instances of Burns’s successful appropriation of already familiar poetic images.

Offer examples of Burns’s capacity for observation of small yet telling aspects of nature.

Although Burns’s songs do not require music, many have been set to music. What qualities make them so musical?

Show how “Holy Willie’s Prayer” is a satire not just of religious hypocrisy but also of Calvinism.

Are Burns’s moral lapses as noteworthy as literary historians have tended to make them?


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Bentman, Raymond. Robert Burns. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This complete introduction to the life and works of Robert Burns describes Burns’s background, analyzes his poetry and songs, then places him in the context of late eighteenth century literature. Includes an annotated secondary bibliography and is suitable for high school students and college undergraduates.

Daiches, David. Robert Burns and His World. New York: Viking Press, 1972. A brief but very thorough account of Burns’s life and times. Sections placing him in the Scottish literary and social traditions are particularly useful. The atmosphere of Burns’s Scotland is well conveyed by the many well-chosen illustrations.

Jack, R. D. S., and Andrew Noble, eds. The Art of Robert Burns. London: Vision Press, 1982. The nine essays contained in this book place Burns in a wide social and literary context, outside his native Scotland. They seek to show Burns as a complex writer, and not merely a “cosy representative of Scottish virtues.” Suitable for intermediate and advanced students.

McGuirk, Carol. Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. A study of Burns’s work in the context of his literary contemporaries. McGuirk persuasively maintains that Burns’s flaws were a result not of his lesser skill in standard English but of the sentimentality of thought and diction shared in varying degrees by most eighteenth century poets. Good bibliography, arranged by topics.

McIntyre, Ian. Dirt and Deity: A Life of Robert Burns. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Written for the bicentenary of Burns’s death, this biography organizes previous research into Burns’s life, telling its story as much as possible through Burns’s letters and the correspondence and memoirs of those who knew him.

Noble, Andrew. Robert Burns and English Romanticism. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2001. Scholarly examination of Burns in the context of the great literary tradition of his time.

Skoblow, Jeffrey. Dooble Tongue: Scots, Burns, Contradiction. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2001. Places Burns and his poetics in historical and Scottish cultural context. Bibliographical references, index.