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Robert Burns

Robert Burns

The work of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) is characterized by realism, intense feeling, and metrical virtuosity. His best work is in Scots, the vernacular of southern Scotland, and he is one of the greatest authors in that language of the last 4 centuries.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on Jan. 25, 1759, in the cottage of hard-working farmer parents. He grew up in the general atmosphere of dour Scottish Calvinism, but his father's moderate religious views helped instill in Burns a spirit of tolerance and of rebellion against the grimmer doctrines of Calvinism. Although Burns's formal schooling was skimpy, he read avidly and for a time had a good tutor in John Murdoch, who gave him a thorough grounding in the 18th-century genteel tradition of English literature.

The family worked hard on their Ayrshire farm, and the arduousness of his labor in adolescence was to have a crippling effect in the long run on Robert's health. And troubles with landlords and their agents were helping to foster in him the egalitarianism and rebelliousness against privilege which became prominent themes in his poetry. In 1784 his father died in bankruptcy, and the family then moved a few miles away to Mossgiel. Here and in nearby Mauchline the gregarious and attractive Burns embarked on his notorious career as womanizer, which extended to about 1790. (By the end of his short life he was to have fathered fourteen children, nine of them out of wedlock, by six different mothers.)

Achievement and Sudden Fame

At Mossgiel, Burns's poetic powers developed spectacularly, and in 1786 he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect at nearby Kilmarnock. At this time Burns was 27, and he had written some of the most effective and biting satires in the language. Among them were "Holy Willie's Prayer" (a dramatic monologue which exposes the hypocrisy of a Calvinist pharisee) and "The Holy Fair" (a cynically humorous description of the Scottish equivalent of a religious camp meeting). Other important poems which appeared in his first volume were "Address to the Unco Guid" (a moving appeal to the rigidly upright to show tolerance for the fallen); "The Jolly Beggars" (a dramatic poem celebrating ragged havenots and ending with one of the most exhilarating paeans to anarchism in any language); the masterful "Address to the Deil" (that is, to the Devil); "The Cotter's Saturday Night" (an idealization of rural Scottish virtues); the sentimental but moving "Auld Farmer's Salutation to His Mare"; and the poignant "To a Mouse" (a poem that treats the human condition through presenting a field mouse unearthed by the plow). These and other typical poems by Burns are almost unparalleled in their combination of direct colloquialism and profundity of feeling or shrewd satirical characterization. Not for centuries had such fine poetry been written in the Scots tongue, poetry of feeling that exhibited great metrical virtuosity.

But 1786 was also a year of great distress for Burns. His liaison with Jean Armour, a Mauchline girl, had resulted in the birth of twins, and the two unwed parents were exposed to public penance. In addition, Burns was in love with Mary Campbell, the "Highland Mary" of his lyric, but she died in 1786, apparently in giving birth to his child. He contemplated emigrating to Jamaica, but he abandoned the plan and spent the winter in Edinburgh, where he was lionized. Early in 1787 a new edition of his poems was published which made him famous not only throughout Scotland but also in England and internationally. After a summer and fall spent in touring Scotland (the only real traveling he ever did), and incidentally in a renewal of his affair with Jean, Burns spent a second winter in Edinburgh. The limelight had begun to dim, but the sojourn was highlighted by the tragicomic love episode with Mrs. M'Lehose, the "Clarinda" of the "Sylvander-Clarinda" letters. This episode ended in March 1788 with Burns's decision to return to Mauchline and marry Jean, who had borne him a second set of twins.

Later Years and His Songs

After his marriage Burns turned his efforts to supporting his family. In 1788 he leased a farm at Ellisland, 45 miles from Mauchline. After frustrating delays in house building and an equally frustrating few years trying to wring an income from reluctant farmland, he moved with Jean and the children to Dumfries. In 1789 he had begun duties as a tax inspector, a profession in which he continued until his death.

At Ellisland, Burns had little leisure, but it was there that he wrote his masterpiece of comic humor "Tam o'Shanter," his one outstanding piece of narrative verse. He also wrote numerous songs (some of them original lyrics for old tunes, some refurbishings of old lyrics) for The Scots Musical Museum, an anthology of Scottish songs with which he had been associated since 1787. From 1792 until his death he also collaborated on a similar work, A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. Most of Burns's poetic effort in the Ellisland and Dumfries periods was in this area of song writing and song editing (he had written songs earlier but had usually not published them), and his achievement was spectacular. Among the lyrics, early and late, that he composed or reworked are "Mary Morison," "Highland Mary," "Duncan Gray," "Green Grow the Rashes, O," "Auld Lang Syne," "John Anderson, My Jo," "Scots Wha Hae Wi' Wallace Bled," "A Man's a Man for A' That," "A Red, Red Rose," and "Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonie Doon." These are true song lyrics; that is, they are not poems meant to be set to music but rather are poems written to melodies that define the rhythm.

Burns's years in Dumfries were years of hard work and hardship but not (as posthumous legend soon began to insist) of ostracism and moral decline. He was respected by his fellow townsmen and his colleagues. His health, always precarious, began to fail, and he died of heart disease on July 21, 1796. As if in witness to his vitality, his wife gave birth to their last child on the day of the funeral.

Further Reading

Two dependable biographies of Burns are Hans Hecht, Robert Burns: The Man and His Work (1919; trans. 1936; 2d ed. 1950); and Franklyn Bliss Snyder, The Life of Robert Burns (1932). Catherine Carswell, The Life of Robert Burns (1931; 2d ed. 1951), lacks documentation but is sensitive and interesting. Good critical studies include David Daiches, Robert Burns (1950; rev. ed. 1967), and Thomas Crawford, Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs (1960). On the songs see James C. Dick, ed., The Songs of Robert Burns (1903; rev. ed. 1962). For Burns's place in Scots literature see Kurt Wittig, The Scottish Tradition in Literature (1958), as well as Daiches's book. □

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Burns, Robert

Robert Burns

Born: January 25, 1759
Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland
Died: July 21, 1796
Dumfries, Scotland

Scottish poet

Intense feeling and technical skill characterizes the work of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. His best work is in Scots, the language of southern Scotland. He is one of the greatest authors of that language in the last four centuries.

Early life and education

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland, on January 25, 1759, to hard-working farmer parents. He began helping his father with farm work at the age of twelve. The difficulty of the labor later had a crippling effect on his health. Although Burns's formal schooling was limited, he loved to read and for a time he was tutored by John Murdoch, who thoroughly educated him in eighteenth-century English literature.

The family worked hard on the Ayrshire farm and at several others, but their lives were never made easier. Ongoing troubles with landlords and their agents fueled the rebellion that Burns felt against authority, which later became a major theme in his poetry. In 1784 his father died, and the family moved a few miles away to Mossgiel, Scotland. Here and in the nearby town of Mauchline, Scotland, the charming and attractive Burns began numerous love affairs, some of which extended to about 1790. (By the end of his short life he was to have fathered fourteen children by six different mothers.)

Achievement and sudden fame

While continuing to do farm work in Mossgiel, Burns began writing poetry, and his talents developed in a spectacular way. Many of his poems expressed his love of the country and its people and poked fun at his favorite target, followers of Calvinism (a religion that features a strict belief in God's absolute will over the affairs of humans). In 1786 he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect at nearby Kilmarnock, Scotland, and the book was a success. At this time Burns was twenty-seven, and he had written some of the most effective and biting pieces of satire (ridicule or scorn) in the language. Among them were "Holy Willie's Prayer" (a dramatic speech that mocked a believer in Calvinism) and "The Holy Fair" (a humorous description of a Scottish religious camp meeting).

Other important poems that appeared in his first volume were "Address to the Unco Guid" (an appeal to the religious not to look down on sinners); "The Jolly Beggars" (a dramatic poem celebrating poor people); the masterful "Address to the Deil" (that is, to the Devil); "The Cotter's Saturday Night" (in praise of the Scottish countryside); and the moving "Auld Farmer's Salutation to His Mare" and "To a Mouse" (the latter a poem written to a field mouse who has been killed by a farmer while plowing). These and other poems by Burns are almost unequaled in their combination of accurate local language and depth of feeling. Not for centuries had such fine poetry been written in the Scots tongue.

But 1786 was also a year of great distress for Burns. His affair with Jean Armour had resulted in the birth of twins, and her parents refused to allow the couple to marry because of Burns's reputation as a critic of religion. In addition, Burns was in love with Mary Campbell, for whom he wrote the song "Highland Mary," but she died in 1786 as a result of giving birth to his child. Burns considered leaving the country for Jamaica, but he abandoned the plan and spent the winter in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was praised and honored for the success of his book. Early in 1787 a new edition of his poems was published that made him famous not only throughout Scotland but also in England and internationally. After a summer and fall spent touring Scotland (the only real traveling he ever did) and restarting his affair with Jean, Burns spent a second winter in Edinburgh. In March 1788 Burns returned to Mauchline and finally married Jean, who had given birth to a second set of his twins.

Later years and his songs

After his wedding Burns turned his efforts to supporting his family. In 1788 he leased a farm at Ellisland, Scotland, forty-five miles from Mauchline. After annoying delays in the building of his house and several rough years trying to make an income from his farmland, he moved with Jean and the children to Dumfries, Scotland. In 1789 he had begun working as a tax inspector, a profession in which he continued until his death. At Ellisland Burns had little free time, but it was there that he wrote his masterpiece of comic humor "Tam o'Shanter," his one outstanding piece of narrative verse.

Burns also wrote numerous songs (some of them original lyrics for old tunes, some reworkings of old lyrics) for The Scots Musical Museum, a collection of Scottish songs with which he had been associated since 1787. From 1792 until his death he also contributed to a similar work, A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. Most of Burns's poetic efforts in the Ellisland and Dumfries periods was in this area of song writing and song editing (he had written songs earlier but had usually not published them), and the results were very popular. Among the lyrics that he composed or reworked were "Mary Morison," "Highland Mary," "Duncan Gray," "Green Grow the Rashes, O," "Auld Lang Syne," "John Anderson, My Jo," "Scots Wha Hae Wi' Wallace Bled," "A Man's a Man for A' That," "A Red, Red Rose," and "Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonie Doon." These are true song lyricsthat is, they are not poems meant to be set to music but rather are poems written to melodies that define the rhythm.

Burns's years in Dumfries were years of work and hardship, but contrary to reports written after his death, he was not shunned by others and he did not fall into moral decline. His fellow townsmen and his coworkers respected him. His health, which always caused him problems, began to fail, and he died of heart disease on July 21, 1796. His wife gave birth to their last child on the day of his funeral.

For More Information

Lindsay, Maurice. Robert Burns: The Man, His Work, The Legend. 2nd ed. London, MacGibbon & Kee, 1968.

McIntyre, Ian. Dirt & Deity: A Life of Robert Burns. London: HarperCollins, 1995.

Sprott, Gavin. Robert Burns: Pride and Passion. Edinburgh: HMSO, 1996.

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Burns, Robert

Robert Burns, 1759–96, Scottish poet.

Life

The son of a hard-working and intelligent farmer, Burns was the oldest of seven children, all of whom had to help in the work on the farm. Although always hard pressed financially, the elder Burns, until his death in 1784, encouraged his sons with their education. As a result, Burns as a boy not only read the Scottish poetry of Ramsay and the collections compiled by Hailes and Herd, but also the works of Pope, Locke, and Shakespeare. By 1781, Burns had tried his hand at several agricultural jobs without success. Although he had begun writing, and his poems were circulated widely in manuscript, none were published until 1786. At this time he had already begun a life of dissipation, and he was not only discouraged but poor and was involved simultaneously with several women.

Burns decided to marry Mary Campbell and migrate to Jamaica. To help finance the journey, he published at Kilmarnock Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), which was an immediate success. Mary Campbell died before she and Burns could marry, and Burns changed his mind about migration. He toured the Highlands, brought out a second edition of his poems at Edinburgh in 1787, and for two winters was socially prominent in the Scottish city. In 1788 he married Jean Armour, who had borne him four children, and retired to a farm at Ellisland. By 1791 Burns had failed as a farmer, and he moved to nearby Dumfries, where he held a position as an exciseman. He died at 37 after a severe attack of rheumatic fever.

Verse

Burns's art is at its best in songs such as "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton," "My Heart's in the Highlands," and "John Anderson My Jo." Two collections contain 268 of his songs—George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (6 vol., 1793–1811) and James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum (5 vol., 1787–1803). Some of these, such as "Auld Lang Syne" and "Comin' thro' the Rye," are among the most familiar and best-loved poems in the English language. But his talent was not confined to song; two descriptive pieces, "Tam o' Shanter" and "The Jolly Beggars," are among his masterpieces.

Burns had a fine sense of humor, which was reflected in his satirical, descriptive, and playful verse. His great popularity with the Scots lies in his ability to depict with loving accuracy the life of his fellow rural Scots, as he did in "The Cotter's Saturday Night." His use of dialect brought a stimulating, much-needed freshness and raciness into English poetry, but Burns's greatness extends beyond the limits of dialect. His poems are written about Scots, but, in tune with the rising humanitarianism of his day, they apply to a multitude of universal problems.

Bibliography

See his poems (ed. by J. L. Robertson, 1953); letters (ed. by D. Ferguson and G. Ross Roy, 2 vol., 1985); biographies by M. Lindsay (2d ed. 1968), R. T. Fitzhugh (1970), and R. Crawford (2008); studies by D. Daiches (1978), H. Hecht (1985), and C. McGuirk (1985).

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Burns, Robert

Burns, Robert (1759–96). Poet, son of an Ayrshire tenant farmer. Well educated by an enlightened parish schoolmaster, Burns grew up with an appetite for literature which constantly jostled with his love of the vernacular culture of his region and country. His first creative period coincided with his father's death in 1784, his own unsuccessful attempts at farming, and a passionate affair with Jean Armour. It culminated in the publication of the so-called Kilmarnock edition of his Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786). This carefully crafted selection of poems, which was designed to show that Scots could be used as a vehicle of polite literature, was a literary sensation and marks the beginning of a Burns cult that has survived and prospered until the present day. It earned Burns the quite unwarranted reputation for being an untaught natural genius and quickly established him as Scotland's national bard, the man whose loyalties to the refined polite conventions of the English neo-classical literary tradition and to the simplicities of vernacular verse seemed to typify the cultural dilemmas of educated and ambitious post-Union Scots. Being lionized in Edinburgh proved an unnerving and complicated experience for Burns, who was on the point of emigrating to Jamaica when marriage, the offer of a farm, and an appointment in the excise in 1789 made him decide to stay in Scotland. The second creative period of his career was marked by his contributions to James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum (1789–1803). These took the form of more than 100 brilliantly and delicately reworked vernacular songs and lyrics which some modern critics think are the ultimate vindication of his claim that he had transformed the literary potential of Scots and, indeed, of vernacular literature generally. He died in poverty in Dumfries in 1796 at the age of 37.

Nicholas Phillipson

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BURNS, Robert

BURNS, Robert [1759–96].Scottish national poet, born in Alloway, Ayrshire, and educated by a tutor, by his father at home, and by his own wide reading. His childhood and youth were spent helping his father in unsuccessful farming ventures. His first volume of poems, the Kilmarnock Edition of 1786, aroused great enthusiasm and he was fêted in Edinburgh social circles. He had friends and patrons of high rank, despite his radical views, but it was not until 1789 that he obtained in Dumfries the excise appointment he sought, and not until 1791 that he gave up farming to become a full-time exciseman. In his earliest poems, Burns hesitates between SCOTS and ENGLISH, but the influence of Robert Fergusson confirmed his preference for Scots. Widely considered the supreme poet in that tongue, Burns draws on the registers of folk-song, storytelling, preaching, social banter, and daily work, as well as the Bible and Augustan English poetry, and is noted for his ability to modulate between English and Scots for subtle effects:But pleasures are like poppies spread;
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever;
Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
That hour, o' night's black arch the key-stane,
And sic a night he taks the road in,
As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in.
(from Tam o'Shanter, 1791)


The main achievement of his later years was a body of Scots songs, some 250 of them partly or wholly his own, contributed to the collections of James Johnson (six volumes, 1787–1803) and George Thomson (five volumes, 1793–1818).

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Burns, Robert

Burns, Robert (1759–96) Scottish poet. The success of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), which includes “The Holy Fair” and “To a Mouse”, enabled Burns to move to Edinburgh, where he was admired as “the heaven-taught ploughman”. Although popular, he could not support himself from his poetry and so became an excise officer. Scotland's unofficial national poet, his works include “Tam o'Shanter” (1790) and the song “Auld Lang Syne”. An annual Burns Night is held on his birthday, January 25.

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