Posted on

Robert Burns: The Voice of Scotland

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

But while we are on the subject of Poetry, what think you, Miss Heywood, of Burns’ Lines to his Mary? — Oh I there is Pathos to madden one! — If ever there was a Man who felt, it was Burns. — Montgomery has all the Fire of Poetry, Wordsworth has the true soul of it — Campbell in his Pleasures of Hope has touched the extreme of our Sensations — “Like Angel’s visits, few & far between.’ Can you conceive any thing more subduing, more melting, more fraught with the deep Sublime than that Line? — But Burns — I confess my sence of his Pre-eminence, Miss Heywood — If Scott has a fault, it is the want of Passion. — Tender, Elegant, Descriptive — but Tame. — The Man who cannot do justice to the attributes of Woman is my contempt. — Sometimes indeed a flash of feeling seems to irradiate him — as in the Lines we were speaking of — “Oh! Woman in our hours of Ease’. — But Burns is always on fire. — His Soul was the Altar in which lovely Woman sat enshrined, his Spirit truly breathed the immortal Incence which is her Due. –”

 

“I have read several of Burns’ Poems with great delight”, said Charlotte, as soon as she had time to speak, “but I am not poetic enough to separate a Man’s Poetry entirely from his Character; — & poor Burns’s known Irregularities greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines. — I have difficulty in depending on the Truth of his Feelings as a Lover. I have not faith in the sincerity of the affections of a Man of his Description. He felt & he wrote & he forgot.”

-Sanditon, by Jane Austen

Robert Burns (January 25, 1759 – July 21, 1796) was a poet and a lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English and in a “light” Scots dialect which would have been accessible to a wider audience than simply Scottish people. At various times in his career, he wrote in 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 an important source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. A cultural icon in Scotland and among Scots who have relocated to other parts of the world (the Scottish diaspora), his celebration became almost a national charismatic cult during periods of the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature.

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 today across the world include A Red, Red Rose, A Man’s A Man for A’ That, To a Louse, and To a Mouse.

Burns’ Night, effectively a second national day, is celebrated on 25 January with Burns’ Suppers around the world, and is still more widely observed than the official national day, Saint Andrew’s Day, or the new North American celebration Tartan Day.

Robert Burns, often abbreviated to simply Burns, and also known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire, and in Scotland simply as The Bard, was born in Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of William Burnes or Burns (Burns himself originally spelled his surname Burness, but dropped “es” from it), a small farmer, and a man of considerable force of character and self-culture, and Agnes Broun, the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire. His youth was passed in poverty, hardship, and a degree of severe manual labour which left its traces in a premature stoop and weakened constitution. He had little regular schooling, and got much of what education he had from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history, and also wrote for them A Manual of Christian Belief. He also received education from a tutor, John Murdock, who opened an “adventure school” in the Alloway parish in 1763 and taught both Robert and his brother Gilbert Latin, French, and mathematics. With all his ability and character, however, the elder Burns was consistently unfortunate, and migrated with his large family from farm to farm without ever being able to improve his circumstances.

In 1781 Burns went to Irvine to become a flax-dresser, but, as the result of a New Year carousal of the workmen, including himself, the shop took fire and was burned to the ground. This venture accordingly came to an end. In 1783 he started composing poetry in a traditional style using the Ayrshire dialect of Lowland Scots. In 1784 his father died, and Burns with his brother Gilbert made an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm; failing in which they removed to Mossgiel, where they maintained an uphill fight for 4 years.

Robert Burns was reputed to have an affinity for attractive young women of culture. One of his objects of affection was the young Eliza Burnett, daughter of Lord Monboddo. Burn’s father was a tenant at the Monboddo House, and Robert was a frequent visitor there at the learned suppers and as an excuse to see Eliza. He wrote several poems to her beauty and grace, but Eliza died at an early age and no serious consequence arose from their relationship. In 1783 there are at least four letters extant of Burns writing to Eliza, all of which are romantic in content, one containing the passage: “without you I can never be happy”. Burns wrote in 1786 of Eliza: “There has not been anything nearly like her in all the combinations of Beauty, Grace and Goodness the great Creator has formed, since Milton’s Eve on the first day of her existence.”

Meanwhile, his love affair with Jean Armour had passed through its first stage, and the troubles in connection therewith, combined with the want of success in farming, led him to think of going to Jamaica as bookkeeper on a plantation. From this he was dissuaded by a letter from Thomas Blacklock, and at the suggestion of his brother published his poems in the volume, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect in June 1786. This edition was brought out by a local printer in Kilmarnock and contained much of his best work, including The Twa Dogs, Address to the Deil, Hallowe’en, The Cottar’s Saturday Night, To a Mouse, and To a Mountain Daisy, many of which had been written at Mossgiel.

The success of the work was immediate, the poet’s name rang over all Scotland, and he was induced to go to Edinburgh to superintend the issue of a new edition. There he was received as an equal by the brilliant circle of men of letters which the city then boasted – Dugald Stewart, Robertson, Blair, etc., and was a guest at aristocratic tables, where he bore himself with unaffected dignity. Here also Walter Scott, then a boy of 15, saw him and describes him as of “manners rustic, not clownish. His countenance … more massive than it looks in any of the portraits … a strong expression of shrewdness in his lineaments; the eye alone indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest.” The results of this visit outside of its immediate and practical object, included some life-long friendships, among which were those with Lord Glencairn and Mrs Dunlop. The new ed. brought him £400. About this time the episode of Highland Mary occurred.

In the winter of 1786 in Edinburgh he met James Johnson, a struggling music engraver/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.

Statue of Burns in Dumfries On his return to Ayrshire he renewed his relations with Jean Armour, whom he ultimately married, took the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries, having meanwhile taken lessons in the duties of an exciseman, as a line to fall back upon should farming again prove unsuccessful. At Ellisland his society was cultivated by the local gentry. And this, together with literature and his duties in the Customs and Excise, to which he had been appointed in 1789, proved too much of a distraction to admit of success on the farm, which in 1791 he gave up.

Meanwhile he was writing at his best, and in 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 furnish words 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, then would compose 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, 1 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.”

His worldly prospects were now perhaps better than they had ever been; but he was entering upon the last and darkest period of his career. He had become soured, and moreover had alienated many of his best friends by too freely expressing sympathy with the French Revolution, and the then unpopular advocates of reform at home. His health began to give way; he became prematurely old, and fell into fits of despondency; and the habits of intemperance, to which he had always been more or less addicted, grew upon him. He died on July 21, 1796. Within a short time of his death, money started pouring in from all over Scotland to support his widow and children.

His memory is celebrated by Burns clubs across the world; his birthday is an unofficial national day for Scots and those with Scottish ancestry, celebrated with Burns suppers.

Robert Burns’ 1787 epistle to Mrs Scott, Gudewife of Wanchope House, Roxburgh, is a rare example of the rhyming of the word purple – it is a common myth that there is no rhyme.

I’d be mair vauntie o’ my hap,
Douce hingin’ owre my curple,
Than ony ermine ever lap,
Or proud imperial purple.

Want to read the full article?

Sign up for free Jane Austen Membership or if you are an existing user please login

Existing Users Log In
   
Sign up here to become a Jane Austen member
*Required field

Comments are closed.