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Robert Burns
1759 - 1796
 

 


The work of the Scottish poet Robert Burns 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.
 


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Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) (also known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland's favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard) was a poet and a lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and is celebrated worldwide. He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English and a 'light' Scots dialect, accessible to an audience beyond Scotland. He also wrote in standard English, and in these pieces, his political or civil commentary is often at its most blunt.

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. A cultural icon in Scotland and among the Scottish Diaspora around the world, celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature.

As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay (New Year), and Scots Wha Hae served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well-known across the world today, include A Red, Red Rose, A Man's A Man for A' That, To a Louse, To a Mouse, The Battle of Sherramuir, and Ae Fond Kiss.

Robert Burns was born two miles (3 km) south of Ayr, in Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland, the eldest of the seven children of William Burness (1721-1784) (Robert Burns spelled his surname Burness until 1786), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar, The Mearns, and Agnes Broun (1732-1820), the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire.

He was born in a house built by his father (now the Burns Cottage Museum), where he lived until Easter 1766, when he was seven years old. William Burness sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship, and the severe manual labour of the farm left its traces in a premature stoop and a weakened constitution.

He had little regular schooling and got much of his education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history and also wrote for them A Manual Of Christian Belief. He was also taught by John Murdoch (1747-1824), who opened an 'adventure school' in Alloway in 1763 and taught Latin, French, and mathematics to both Robert and his brother Gilbert (1760-1827) from 1765 to 1768 until Murdoch left the parish. After a few years of home education, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School during the summer of 1772 before returning at harvest time to full-time farm labouring until 1773, when he was sent to lodge with Murdoch for three weeks to study grammar, French, and Latin.

By the age of 15, Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick (1759-1820), who inspired his first attempt at poetry, O, Once I Lov'd A Bonnie Lass. In the summer of 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thomson (b.1762), to whom he wrote two songs, Now Westlin' Winds and I Dream'd I Lay.

At Whitsun, 1777, William Burness removed his large family from the unfavourable conditions of Mount Oliphant to the 130-acre (0.53 km2) farm at Lochlea, near Tarbolton, where they stayed until Burness's death in 1784. Subsequently, the family became integrated into the community of Tarbolton. To his father's disapproval, Robert joined a country dancing school in 1779 and, with Gilbert, formed the Tarbolton Bachelor's Club the following year. In 1781 Burns became a Freemason at Lodge St David, Tarbolton. His earliest existing letters date from this time, when he began making romantic overtures to Alison Begbie (b. 1762). In spite of four songs written for her and a suggestion that he was willing to marry her, she rejected him.

In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine to learn to become a flax-dresser, but during the New Year celebrations of 1781/1782 the flax shop caught fire and was sufficiently damaged to send him home to Lochlea farm.

He continued to write poems and songs and began a Commonplace Book in 1783, while his father fought a legal dispute with his landlord. The case went to the Court of Session, and Burness was upheld in January 1784, a fortnight before he died. Robert and Gilbert made an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm, but after its failure they moved to the farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline in March, which they maintained with an uphill fight for the next four years. During the summer of 1784, he came to know a group of girls known collectively as The Belles of Mauchline, one of whom was Jean Armour, the daughter of a stonemason from Mauchline.


Love affairs

His casual love affairs did not endear him to the elders of the local kirk and created for him a reputation for dissoluteness amongst his neighbours. His first illegitimate child, Elizabeth Paton Burns (1785-1817), was born to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760-circa 1799), as he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour. She bore him twins in 1786, and although her father initially forbade their marriage, they were eventually married in 1788. She bore him nine children in total, but only three survived infancy.

During a rift in his relationship with Jean Armour in 1786, and as his prospects in farming declined, he began an affair with Mary Campbell (1763-1786), to whom he dedicated the poems The Highland Lassie O, Highland Mary and To Mary in Heaven. Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that they may have married. They planned to emigrate to Jamaica, where Burns intended to work as a bookkeeper on a plantation. He was dissuaded by a letter from Thomas Blacklock, and before the plans could be acted upon, Campbell died suddenly of a fever in Greenock. That summer, he published the first of his collections of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, which created a sensation and has been recognised as a significant literary event.


Middle years

At the suggestion of his brother, Robert Burns published his poems in the volume Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, known as the Kilmarnock volume. First proposals were published in April 1786 before the poems were finally published in Kilmarnock in July 1786 and sold for 3 shillings. Brought out by John Wilson, a local printer in Kilmarnock, it contained much of his best writing, including The Twa Dogs, Address to the Deil, Hallowe'en, The Cotter's Saturday Night, To a Mouse, and To a Mountain Daisy, many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the work was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.


Edinburgh

He was invited to Edinburgh on 14 December 1786 to oversee the preparation of a revised edition, the first Edinburgh edition, by William Creech, which was finally published on 17 April 1787 (within a week of this event, Burns sold his copyright to Creech for 100 guineas). In Edinburgh, he was received as an equal by the city's brilliant men of letters and was a guest at aristocratic gatherings, where he bore himself with unaffected dignity. Here he encountered, and made a lasting impression on, the 16-year-old Walter Scott, who described him later with great admiration:

"His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are presented in Mr Nasmyth's picture but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits ... there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time."
— Walter Scott

His stay in the city resulted in some lifelong friendships, among which were those with Lord Glencairn, and Frances Anna Dunlop (1730-1815), who became his occasional sponsor and with whom he corresponded for the rest of his life. He embarked on a relationship with the separated Agnes 'Nancy' McLehose (1758-1841), with whom he exchanged passionate letters under pseudonyms (Burns called himself 'Sylvander' and Nancy 'Clarinda'). When it became clear that Nancy would not be easily seduced into a physical relationship, Burns moved on to Jenny Clow (1766-1792), Nancy's domestic servant, who bore him a son, Robert Burns Clow in 1788. His relationship with Nancy concluded in 1791 with a final meeting in Edinburgh before she sailed to Jamaica for what transpired to be a short-lived reconciliation with her estranged husband. Before she left, he sent her the manuscript of Ae Fond Kiss as a farewell to her.

In Edinburgh in early 1787 he met James Johnson, a struggling music engraver and music seller with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Burns shared this interest and became an enthusiastic contributor to The Scots Musical Museum. The first volume of this was published in 1787 and included three songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume 2, and would end up responsible for about a third of the 600 songs in the whole collection as well as making a considerable editorial contribution. The final volume was published in 1803.

On his return to Ayrshire on 18 February 1788, he resumed his relationship with Jean Armour and took a lease on the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries on 18 March (settling there on 11 June) but trained as an exciseman should farming continue to prove unsuccessful. He was appointed duties in Customs and Excise in 1789 and eventually gave up the farm in 1791. Meanwhile, he was writing at his best, and in November 1790 had produced Tam O' Shanter. About this time he was offered and declined an appointment in London on the staff of the Star newspaper, and refused to become a candidate for a newly-created Chair of Agriculture in the University of Edinburgh, although influential friends offered to support his claims. After giving up his farm he removed to Dumfries.

It was at this time that, being requested to write lyrics for The Melodies of Scotland, he responded by contributing over 100 songs. He made major contributions to George Thomson's A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice as well as to James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum. Arguably his claim to immortality chiefly rests on these volumes which placed him in the front rank of lyric poets. Burns described how he had to master singing the tune before he composed the words:

"My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed - which is generally the most difficult part of the business - I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my, pen goes."
—Robert Burns

Burns also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not Burns's), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns's most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, Auld Lang Syne is set to the traditional tune Can Ye Labour Lea, A Red, Red Rose is set to the tune of Major Graham and The Battle of Sherramuir is set to the Cameronian Rant.


Literary style

His direct literary influences in the use of Scots in poetry were Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) and Robert Fergusson. Burns's poetry also drew upon a substantial familiarity and knowledge of Classical, Biblical, and English literature, as well as the Scottish Makar tradition. Burns was skilled in writing not only in the Scots language but also in the Scottish English dialect of the English language. Some of his works, such as Love and Liberty (also known as The Jolly Beggars), are written in both Scots and English for various effects.

His themes included republicanism (he lived during the French Revolutionary period) and Radicalism which he expressed covertly in Scots Wha Hae, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, commentary on the Scottish Kirk of his time, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality, and the beneficial aspects of popular socialising (carousing, Scotch whisky, folk songs, and so forth). Burns and his works were a source of inspiration to the pioneers of liberalism, socialism and the campaign for Scottish self-government, and he is still widely respected by political activists today, ironically even by conservatives and establishment figures because after his death Burns became drawn into the very fabric of Scotland's national identity. It is this, perhaps unique, ability to appeal to all strands of political opinion in the country that have led him to be widely acclaimed as the national poet.

Burns's views on these themes in many ways parallel those of William Blake, but it is believed that, although contemporaries, they were unaware of each other. Burns's works are less overtly mystical.

He is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a "heaven-taught ploughman." Burns would influence later Scottish writers, especially Hugh MacDiarmid, who fought to dismantle the sentimental cult that had dominated Scottish literature in MacDiarmid's opinion.


Later years

Robert Burns was initiated into Lodge St David Tarbolton on 4 July 1781, when he was 22. He was passed and raised on 1 October 1781. Later his lodge became dormant and Burns joined Lodge St James Tarbolton Kilwinning number 135. The location of the Temple where he was made a Freemason is unknown, but on 30 June 1784 the meeting place of the lodge became the “Manson Inn” in Tarbolton, and one month later, on 27 July 1784, Burns became Depute Master, which he held until 1788, often honoured with supreme command.

Although regularly meeting in Tarbolton, the “Burns Lodge” also removed itself to hold meetings in Mauchline. During 1784 he was heavily involved in Lodge business, attending all nine meetings, passing and raising brethren and generally running the Lodge. Similarly, in 1785 he was equally involved as Depute Master, where he again attended all nine lodge meetings amongst other duties of the Lodge. During 1785 he initiated and passed his brother Gilbert being raised on 1 March 1788. He must have been a very popular and well-respected Depute Master, as the minutes show that there were more lodge meetings well attended during the Burns period than at any other time.

At a meeting of Lodge St. Andrew in Edinburgh in 1787, in the presence of the Grand Master and Grand Lodge of Scotland, Burns was toasted by the Grand Master, Francis Chateris. When he was received into Edinburgh Lodges, his occupation was recorded as a “poet”. In early 1787, he was feted by the Edinburgh Masonic fraternity. The Edinburgh period of Burns's life was fateful, as further editions of the Kilmarnock Edition were sponsored by the Edinburgh Freemasons, ensuring that his name spread around Scotland and subsequently to England and abroad.


Tour

During his tour of the South of Scotland, as he was collecting material for The Scots Musical Museum, he visited lodges throughout Ayrshire and became an honorary member of a number of them. On 18 May 1787 he arrived at Eyemouth, Berwickshire, where a meeting was convened of Royal Arch and Burns became a Royal Arch Mason. On his journey home to Ayrshire, he passed through Dumfries (where he later lived), the site of the Globe Inn, which he described as his "favourite howff"(or "inn"). Burns's accommodations at the inn, which is still in use, can be visited by arrangement. His final resting place, the Burns Mausoleum, is also in Dumfries at St.Michaels Kirk. He was posthumously given the freedom of the town.

On 25 July 1787, after being re-elected Depute Master, he presided at a meeting where several well-known Masons were given honorary membership. During his Highland tour, he visited many other lodges. During the period from his election as Depute Master in 1784, Lodge St James had been convened 70 times. Burns was present 33 times and was 25 times the presiding officer. His last meeting at his mother lodge, St James Kilwinning, was on 11 November 1788.

He joined Lodge Dumfries St Andrew Number 179 on 27 December 1788. Out of the six Lodges in Dumfries, he joined the one which was the weakest. The records of this lodge are scant, and we hear no more of him until 30 November 1792, when Burns was elected Senior Warden. From this date until his final meeting in the Lodge on 14 April 1796, it appears that the Lodge met only five times. There are no records of Burns visiting any other Lodges.


Final years

As his health began to give way, Burns began to age prematurely and fell into fits of despondency. The habits of intemperance (alleged mainly by temperance activist James Currie) are said to have aggravated his long-standing rheumatic heart condition. In fact, his death was caused by bacterial endocarditis exacerbated by a streptococcal infection reaching his blood following a dental extraction in winter 1795, and it was no doubt further affected by the three months of famine culminating in the Dumfries Food Riots of March 1796, and on 21 July 1796 he died in Dumfries at the age of 37. The funeral took place on 25 July 1796, the day his son Maxwell was born. A memorial edition of his poems was published to raise money for his wife and children, and within a short time of his death, money started pouring in from all over Scotland to support them.
 


Honours

There are many organizations around the world named after Burns, as well as a large number of statues and memorials. Organisations include the Robert Burns Fellowship of the University of Otago, and the Burns Club Atlanta in the United States. Towns named after Robert Burns include Burns, New York, and Burns, Oregon. Burns' birthplace in Alloway is now a public museum, and significant 19th-century monuments to him stand in Alloway and Edinburgh. In the suburb of Summerhill in Dumfries, the majority of the streets have names with Burns connotations. A BR Standard Class 7 steam locomotive was named after him, along with a later British Rail Class 87 electric locomotive, No.87035.

 

 

 

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