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Robert Burns (1759-1796),
“A Scottish Bard, proud of the name, and whose highest ambition is to sing in his country’s service, where shall he so properly look for patronage as to the illustrious names of his native land: those who bear the honours and inherit the virtues of their ancestors? The poetic genius of my country found me, as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha—at the plough, and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my native soil, in my native tongue; I tuned my wild, artless notes as she inspired.” --ROBERT BURNS, Edinburgh, April 4, 1787.
Poet and songwriter, Burns wrote hundreds of enduring homages to Scottish life and beyond in song and poetry including “Address to a Haggis” (1786), “The Highland Lassie” (1786), “Auld Lang Syne” (1788), “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” (1789), “My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose” (1794), and “Tam o’Shanter” (1790);
Weel done, Cutty-sark!
And in an instant all was dark:
Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to Drink you are inclin'd,
Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear;
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.
[Footnote 1: It is a well-known fact that witches, or any evil spirits, have no power to follow a poor wight any further than the middle of the next running stream. It may be proper likewise to mention to the benighted traveller, that when he falls in with bogles, whatever danger may be in his going forward, there is much more hazard in turning back.—R. B.]
Burns wrote of his own rural experience as well as dealing with themes of patriotism, republicanism, class structure, and sexuality, with wit, humor and sometimes bawdy but always accessible verse. He devoted much of his life and writing to honoring Scottish heritage and culture; its people, literature, folklore, ballads, and music. He was also at times deeply troubled by the societal values that led to conflicts and wars and he was considered radical for his political views. He alienated himself from many friends when he expressed support of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. While not forgetting his humble roots he went on to be one of the most celebrated poets during his lifetime and up to the present, almost two hundred and fifty years later. His life and works have inspired many other writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hugh MacDairmid, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth.
Robert (Rabbie) Burns was born on 25 January, 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire of south west Scotland, the son of a poor tenant farmer or “cotter” William Burnes [Burness] (1721-1784) and his wife Agnes Broun [Broun]. The Burns family lived in a cottage that William himself had built, and which John Keats would later visit and write his sonnet “Written in the cottage where Burns was born”. The cottage and property now belong to the Burns National Heritage Park. Young Robert and his siblings worked the fields with their father, which was hard manual labour near the shores of the Firth of Clyde. They were exposed to the sometimes fair but more often harsh climes of Scotland that would take their toll on Robert’s constitution. He and his younger brother Gilbert also attended the local school and were tutored by John Murdoch.
Burns became a voracious reader of many classic Greek, English and Scottish literary works including William Shakespeare’s, Allen Ramsay’s, and Robert Fergusson’s. He also studied the Bible, French, Latin, arithmetic, geography, and history, and his childhood nurse Betty Davidson is said to have introduced him to the world of Scottish folklore and witchcraft as in “Tam o’Shanter”. The family moved to the farm Mount Oliphant in 1766, then a year later to Lochlea farm. Burns was a handsome, dark-haired young lad; a hard worker at the plow, and he worked as a flax dresser for a time. He also started on his life-long habit of spending nights out drinking Scotch whisky and flirting with the ladies. Burns became a Freemason in 1781 and after the death of his father in 1784, he and Gilbert rented Mossgiel farm, near Mauchline, but it proved an unsuccessful business venture.
Around the age of fifteen Burns had started writing poems in the Ayrshire dialect of Lowlands Scots, including his first, “Handsome Nell” (1771-79);
O once I lov'd a bonie lass,
Ay, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I'll love my handsome Nell.
Other early poems include the oft-quoted “To A Mouse” (1785) written by Burns when he overturned their nest whilst plowing a field. It inspired the title of novelist John Steinbeck’s masterpiece Of Mice and Men (1937).
But mousie thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley,
An Lea'e us nought but grief an' pain for promised joy.
“Holy Willie’s Prayer” (written in 1785) is Burns’ satirisation of the local parish Kirk of Mauchline’s hypocritical and humorless elder William Fisher;
When from my mither's womb I fell,
Thou might hae plung'd me deep in hell,
To gnash my gums, and weep and wail,
In burnin lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell,
Chain'd to their stakes.
Yet I am here, a chosen sample,
To show Thy grace is great and ample:
I’m here a pillar o' Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example
To a' Thy flock !
Around the age of twenty-five Burns fell in love with Jean Armour, to whom “Bonie Jean” (1793) is addressed, and with whom he had twins. He wanted to marry her but her father and the Kirk opposed it. Frustrated with this turn of events, he decided to emigrate and seek his fortunes in the West Indies. In order to fund his passage he had his first collection of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock edition) published in 1786.
However, his plans soon changed when the joy of fatherhood set in and Poems immediately received high acclaim. Burns “the Ploughman’s Poet” became popular among Edinburgh society; he was guest of the Duke and Duchess of Atholl, his principal patron the Earl of Glencairn fêted him, and William Creech published Edinburgh editions of his works. Though he was not aware of his contemporary William Blake, a fifteen year old Sir Walter Scott met him. With Armour’s father seeing a more respectable man who could provide for his daughter, he encouraged their marriage and in 1788 Robert and Jean finally married and settled down on the farm Ellisland in Dumfriesshire.
Of a' the airts the wind can blaw
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best.
There wild woods grow, and rivers row,
And monie a hill between,
But day and night my fancy's flight
Is ever wi' my Jean. –“Of a' the Airts the Wind Can Blaw” (1788)
The Ellisland farm proved yet another failure and Burns with his wife and children moved to Dumfries near the Solway Firth where he obtained a position as Excise man in 1789. He worked in the Port collecting taxes on cargo and seizing smuggling ships, though he did not entirely enjoy it or take it too seriously, as his poem “The Deil's Awa wi' th' Exciseman” (1792-The Devil has Taken the Exciseman), poking fun at the position, suggests;
The deil cam fiddlin' thro' the town,
And danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman,
And ilka wife cries, "Auld Mahoun,
I wish you luck o' the prize, man."
The annual pay of £50 finally provided Burns with a regular and comfortable income with which he could support his family, though he received little recompense for his literary efforts. In 1787 he also enjoyed travels throughout the country. Due to his love of music, he and James Johnson set to the task of collecting together all the traditional Scottish songs, music and lyrics, published as The Scots Musical Museum (1787) which grew to six volumes. A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1793) was also partly produced by Burns, with George Thomson. Burns joined the democratic militia group Royal Dumfries Volunteers in 1795. The same year his beloved three year old daughter Elizabeth died.
Years of working in the fields and a penchant for debauchery and drink no doubt contributed to Burns’ ill-health, but there is much speculation as to what caused his death. He did contract rheumatic fever as stated in a letter to his friend Mrs. Dunlop of Dumfries on 31 July, 1796. Under the care of Doctor Maxwell, he knew his prognosis was grim. With four surviving children and his wife due to have her ninth at any moment, Burns wrote her father to send assistance for her confinement. Robert Burns died on 21 July, 1796, aged thirty-seven, at his home in Mill Vennel, now called Burns House. His son Maxwell, named after his doctor, was born three days later. Burns' remains now rest in the Mausoleum in St Michael's Kirkyard. Jean Armour died in 1834 and now rests beside him.
Robert Burns is now considered a pioneer in the Romantic, socialist, and liberalism movements. While he often wrote with light-hearted humour, some of his works with their universal humanistic appeal contributed to his becoming a Scottish cultural icon. Burns' “Scots Wha Hae” (1793) served as an unofficial national anthem for many years. Inspired by his admiration of 13th century patriot William Wallace and his demise by the English, he penned it after the charge of sedition and trial of Thomas Muir. It is written in the form of a speech given by Robert the Bruce before the battle of Bannockburn, during which Scotland regained its independence from England;
Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to Victorie!
Now's the day, and now's the hour:
See the front o' battle lour,
See approach proud Edward's power -
Chains and Slaverie!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha will fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
Wha, for Scotland's King and Law,
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or Freeman fa',
Let him on wi' me!
By Oppression's woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow! -
Let us do or die!
Robert Burns' birthday is now celebrated the world over as “Robbie Burns Night” with special suppers of cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, and typsy laird for dessert. Guests Address the Haggis, Toast the Lasses with Whisky, and recite his poems and sing his songs. Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” is still sung to celebrate the New Year and Scottish Hogmany (last day of the year). Many of his songs and poems on this site have notes by Burns himself, and Allan Cunningham, who edited The Complete Works of Robert Burns in 1855. In some cases there is more than one version of the same poem or song. Some of them are revisions by Burns of older works.
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.
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