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BURNS, ROBERT (1759-1796)

BURNS, ROBERT (1759–1796), Scottish poet, was born on the 25th of January 1759 in a cottage about 2 m. from Ayr. He was the eldest son of a small farmer, William Burness, of Kincardineshire stock, who wrought hard, practised integrity, wished to bring up his children in the fear of God, but had to fight all his days against the winds and tides of adversity. The poet, said Thomas Carlyle, was fortunate in his father—a man of thoughtful intense character, as the best of our peasants are, valuing knowledge, possessing some and open-minded for more, of keen insight and devout heart, friendly and fearless: a fully unfolded man seldom found in any rank in society, and worth descending far in society to seek. . . . Had he been ever so little richer, the whole might have issued otherwise. But poverty sunk the whole family even below the reach of our cheap school system, and Burns remained a hard-worked plough-boy.

Through a series of migrations from one unfortunate farm to another; from Alloway (where he was taught to read) to Mt. Oliphant, and then (1777) to Lochlea in Tarbolton (where he learnt the rudiments of geometry), the poet remained in the same condition of straitened circumstances. At the age of thirteen he thrashed the corn with his own hands, at fifteen he was the principal labourer. The family kept no servant, and for several years butchers’ meat was a thing unknown in the house. This kind of life, he writes, the cheerless gloom of a hermit and the unceasing toil of a galley-slave, brought me to my sixteenth year. His naturally robust frame was overtasked, and his nervous constitution received a fatal strain. His shoulders were bowed, he became liable to headaches, palpitations and fits of depressing melancholy. From these hard tasks and his fiery temperament, craving in vain for sympathy in a frigid air, grew the strong temptations on which Burns was largely wrecked,—the thirst for stimulants and the revolt against restraint which soon made headway and passed all bars. In the earlier portions of his career a buoyant humour bore him up; and amid thick-coming shapes of ill he bated no jot of heart or hope. He was cheered by vague stirrings of ambition, which he pathetically compares to the blind groping of Homer’s Cyclops round the walls of his cave. Sent to school at Kirkoswald, he became, for his scant leisure, a great reader—eating at meal-times with a spoon in one hand and a book in the other,—and carrying a few small volumes in his pocket to study in spare moments in the fields. The collection of songs he tells us, was my vade mecum. I pored over them driving my cart or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noting the true, tender, sublime or fustian. He lingered over the ballads in his cold room by night; by day, whilst whistling at the plough, he invented new forms and was inspired by fresh ideas, gathering round him the memories and the traditions of his country till they became a mantle and a crown. It was among the furrows of his father’s fields that he was inspired with the perpetually quoted wish—

“That I for poor auld Scotland’s sake
Some useful plan or book could make,
 Or sing a sang at least.”

An equally striking illustration of the same feeling is to be found in his summer Sunday’s ramble to the Leglen wood,—the fabled haunt of Wallace,—which the poet confesses to have visited with as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did the shrine of Loretto. In another reference to the same period he refers to the intense susceptibility to the homeliest aspects of Nature which throughout characterized his genius. Scarcely any object gave me more—I do not know if I should call it pleasure—but something which exalts and enraptures me—than to walk in the sheltered side of a wood or high plantation in a cloudy winter day and hear the stormy wind howling among the trees and raving over the plain. I listened to the birds, and frequently turned out of my path lest I should disturb their little songs or frighten them to another station. Auroral visions were gilding his horizon as he walked in glory, if not in joy, behind his plough upon the mountain sides.; but the swarm of his many-coloured fancies was again made grey by the atra cura of unsuccessful toils.

Burns had written his first verses of note, Behind yon hills where Stinchar (afterwards Lugar) flows, when in 1781 he went to Irvine to learn the trade of a flax-dresser. It was, he says, an unlucky affair. As we were giving a welcome carousal to the New Year, the shop took fire and burned to ashes; and I was left, like a true poet, without a sixpence. His own heart, too, had unfortunately taken fire. He was poring over mathematics till, in his own phraseology,—still affected in its prose by the classical pedantries caught from Pope by Ramsay,—the sun entered Virgo, when a charming fillette, who lived next door, overset my trigonometry, and set me off at a tangent from the scene of my studies. We need not detail the story, nor the incessant repetitions of it, which marked and sometimes marred his career. The poet was jilted, went through the usual despairs, and resorted to the not unusual sources of consolation. He had found that he was no enemy to social life, and his mates had discovered that he was the best of boon companions in the lyric feasts, where his eloquence shed a lustre over wild ways of life, and where he was beginning to be distinguished as a champion of the New Lights and a satirist of the Calvinism whose waters he found like those of Marah.

In Robert’s 25th year his father died, full of sorrows and apprehensions for the gifted son who wrote for his tomb in Alloway kirkyard, the fine epitaph ending with the characteristic line—

“For even his failings leaned to virtue’s side.”

For some time longer the poet, with his brother Gilbert, lingered at Lochlea, reading agricultural books, miscalculating crops, attending markets, and in a mood of reformation resolving, in spite of the world, the flesh and the devil, to be a wise man. Affairs, however, went no better with the family; and in 1784 they migrated to Mossgiel, where he lived and wrought, during four years, for a return scarce equal to the wage of the commonest labourer in our day. Meanwhile he had become intimate with his future wife, Jean Armour; but the father, a master mason, discountenanced the match, and the girl being disposed to sigh as a lover, as a daughter to obey, Burns, in 1786, gave up his suit, resolved to seek refuge in exile, and having accepted a situation as book-keeper to a slave estate in Jamaica, had taken his passage in a ship for the West Indies. His old associations seemed to be breaking up, men and fortune scowled, and hungry ruin had him in the wind, when he wrote the lines ending—​

“Adieu, my native banks of Ayr,”

and addressed to the most famous of the loves, in which he was as prolific as Catullus or Tibullus, the proposal—

“Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary.”

He was withheld from his project and, happily or unhappily, the current of his life was turned by the success of his first volume, which was published at Kilmarnock in June 1786. It contained some of his most justly celebrated poems, the results of his scanty leisure at Lochlea and Mossgiel; among others “The Twa Dogs,”—a graphic idealization of Aesop,—The Author’s Prayer, the Address to the Deil, The Vision and The Dream, Halloween, The Cottar’s Saturday Night, the lines To a Mouse and To a Daisy, Scotch Drink, Man was made to Mourn, the Epistle to Davie, and some of his most popular songs. This epitome of a genius so marvellous and so varied took his audience by storm. The country murmured of him from sea to sea. With his poems, says Robert Heron, old and young, grave and gay, learned and ignorant, were alike transported. I was at that time resident in Galloway, and I can well remember how even plough-boys and maid-servants would have gladly bestowed the wages they earned the most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might but procure the works of Burns. This first edition only brought the author £20 direct return, but it introduced him to the literati of Edinburgh, whither he was invited, and where he was welcomed, feasted, admired and patronized. He appeared as a portent among the scholars of the northern capital and its university, and manifested, according to Mr Lockhart, in the whole strain of his bearing, his belief that in the society of the most eminent men of his nation he was where he was entitled to be, hardly deigning to flatter them by exhibiting a symptom of being flattered.

Sir Walter Scott bears a similar testimony to the dignified simplicity and almost exaggerated independence of the poet, during this annus mirabilis of his success. As for Burns, Virgilium vidi tantum, I was a lad of fifteen when he came to Edinburgh, but had sense enough to be interested in his poetry, and would have given the world to know him. I saw him one day with several gentlemen of literary reputation, among whom I remember the celebrated Dugald Stewart. Of course we youngsters sat silent, looked, and listened. . . . I remember . . . his shedding tears over a print representing a soldier lying dead in the snow, his dog sitting in misery on one side, on the other his widow with a child in her arms. His person was robust, his manners rustic, not clownish. . . . His countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. There was a strong expression of shrewdness in his lineaments; the eye alone indicated the poetic 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. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the least intrusive forwardness. I thought his acquaintance with English poetry was rather limited; and having twenty times the abilities of Allan Ramsay and of Fergusson he talked of them with too much humility as his models. He was much caressed in Edinburgh, but the efforts made for his relief were extremely trifling. Laudatur et alget. Burns went from those meetings, where he had been posing professors (no hard task), and turning the heads of duchesses, to share a bed in the garret of a writer’s apprentice,—they paid together 3s. a week for the room. It was in the house of Mr Carfrae, Baxter’s Close, Lawnmarket, first scale stair on the left hand in going down, first door in the stair. During Burns’s life it was reserved for William Pitt to recognize his place as a great poet; the more cautious critics of the North were satisfied to endorse him as a rustic prodigy, and brought upon themselves a share of his satire. Some of the friendships contracted during this period—as for Lord Glencairn and Mrs Dunlop—are among the most pleasing and permanent in literature; for genuine kindness was never wasted on one who, whatever his faults, has never been accused of ingratitude. But in the bard’s city life there was an unnatural element. He stooped to beg for neither smiles nor favour, but the gnarled country oak is cut up into cabinets in artificial prose and verse. In the letters to Mr Graham, the prologue to Mr Wood, and the epistles to Clarinda, he is dancing minuets with hob-nailed shoes. When, in 1787, the second edition of the Poems came out, the proceeds of their sale realized for the author £400. On the strength of this sum he gave himself two long rambles, full of poetic material—one through the border towns into England as far as Newcastle, returning by Dumfries to Mauchline, and another a grand tour through the East Highlands, as far as Inverness, returning by Edinburgh, and so home to Ayrshire.

In 1788 Burns took a new farm at Ellisland on the Nith, settled there, married, lost his little money, and wrote, among other pieces, Auld Lang Syne and Tam o’ Shanter. In 1789 he obtained, through the good office of Mr Graham of Fintry, an appointment as excise-officer of the district, worth £50 per annum. In 1791 he removed to a similar post at Dumfries worth £70. In the course of the following year he was asked to contribute to George Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs with Symphonies and Accompaniments for the Pianoforte and Violin: the poetry by Robert Burns. To this work he contributed about one hundred songs, the best of which are now ringing in the ear of every Scotsman from New Zealand to San Francisco. For these, original and adapted, he received a shawl for his wife, a picture by David Allan representing the Cottar’s Saturday Night, and £5! The poet wrote an indignant letter and never afterwards composed for money. Unfortunately the Rock of Independence to which he had proudly retired was but a castle of air, over which the meteors of French political enthusiasm cast a lurid gleam. In the last years of his life, exiled from polite society on account of his revolutionary opinions, he became sourer in temper and plunged more deeply into the dissipations of the lower ranks, among whom he found his only companionship and sole, though shallow, sympathy.

Burns began to feel himself prematurely old. Walking with a friend who proposed to him to join a county ball, he shook his head, saying “that’s all over now,” and adding a verse of Lady Grizel Baillie’s ballad—

“O were we young as we ance hae been,
We sud hae been galloping down on yon green,
And linking it ower the lily-white lea,
But were na my heart light I wad dee.”

His hand shook; his pulse and appetite failed; his spirits sunk into a uniform gloom. In April 1796 he wrote—“I fear it will be some time before I tune my lyre again. By Babel’s streams I have sat and wept. I have only known existence by the pressure of sickness and counted time by the repercussions of pain. I close my eyes in misery and open them without hope. I look on the vernal day and say with poor Fergusson

“Say wherefore has an all-indulgent heaven
Life to the comfortless and wretched given.”

On the 4th of July he was seen to be dying. On the 12th he wrote to his cousin for the loan of £10 to save him from passing his last days in jail. On the 21st he was no more. On the 25th, when his last son came into the world, he was buried with local honours, the volunteers of the company to which he belonged firing three volleys over his grave.

It has been said that Lowland Scotland as a distinct nationality came in with two warriors and went out with two bards. It came in with William Wallace and Robert Bruce and went out with Robert Burns and Walter Scott. The first two made the history, the last two told the story and sung the song. But what in the minstrel’s lay was mainly a requiem was in the people’s poet also a prophecy. The position of Burns in the progress of British literature may be shortly defined; he was a link between two eras, like Chaucer, the last of the old and the first of the new—the inheritor of the traditions and the music of the past, in some respects the herald of the future.

The volumes of our lyrist owe part of their popularity to the fact of their being an epitome of melodies, moods and memories that had belonged for centuries to the national life, the best inspirations of which have passed into them. But in gathering from his ancestors Burns has exalted their work by asserting a new dignity for their simplest themes. He is the heir of Barbour, distilling the spirit of the old poet’s epic into a battle chant, and of Dunbar, reproducing the various humours of a half-sceptical, half-religious philosophy of life. He is the pupil of Ramsay, but he leaves his master, to make a social protest and to lead a literary revolt. The Gentle Shepherd, still largely a court pastoral, in which a man’s a man if born a gentleman, may be contrasted with The Jolly Beggars—the one is like a minuet of the ladies of Versailles on the sward of the Swiss village near the Trianon, the other like the march of the maenads with Theroigne de Mericourt. Ramsay adds to the rough tunes and words of the ballads the refinement of the wits who in the Easy and Johnstone clubs talked over their cups of Prior and Pope, Addison and Gay. Burns inspires them with a fervour that thrills the most wooden of his race. We may clench the contrast by a representative example. This is from Ramsay’s version of perhaps the best-known of Scottish songs,—

“Methinks around us on each bough
  A thousand Cupids play;
 Whilst through the groves I walk with you,
  Each object makes me gay.
 Since your return—the sun and moon
  With brighter beams do shine,
 Streams murmur soft notes while they run
  As they did lang syne.”

Compare the verses in Burns—

“We twa hae run about the braes
  And pu’d the gowans fine;
 But we’ve wandered mony a weary foot
  Sin auld lang syne.
 We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
  Frae morning sun till dine:
 But seas between us braid hae roar’d
  Sin auld lang syne.”

Burns as a poet of the inanimate world doubtless derived hints from Thomson of The Seasons, but in his power of tuning its manifestation to the moods of the mind he is more properly ranked as a forerunner of Wordsworth. He never follows the fashions of his century, except in his failures—in his efforts at set panegyric or fine letter-writing. His highest work knows nothing of Damon or Musidora. He leaves the atmosphere of drawing-rooms for the ingle or the ale-house or the mountain breeze.

The affectations of his style are insignificant and rare. His prevailing characteristic is an absolute sincerity. A love for the lower forms of social life was his besetting sin; Nature was his healing power. Burns compares himself to an Aeolian harp, strung to every wind of heaven. His genius flows over all living and lifeless things with a sympathy that finds nothing mean or insignificant. An uprooted daisy becomes in his pages an enduring emblem of the fate of artless maid and simple bard. He disturbs a mouse’s nest and finds in the tim’rous beastie a fellow-mortal doomed like himself to thole the winter’s sleety dribble, and draws his oft-repeated moral. He walks abroad and, in a verse that glints with the light of its own rising sun before the fierce sarcasm of The Holy Fair, describes the melodies of a simmer Sunday morn. He loiters by Afton Water and murmurs by the running brook a music sweeter than its own. He stands by a roofless tower, where the howlet mourns in her dewy bower, and sets the wild echoes flying, and adds to a perfect picture of the scene his famous vision of Libertie. In a single stanza he concentrates the sentiment of many Night Thoughts—

“The pale moon is setting beyond the white wave,
 And Time is setting wi’ me, O.”

For other examples of the same graphic power we may refer to the course of his stream—

“Whiles ow’r a linn the burnie plays
 As through the glen it wimpled,” &c.,

or to The Birks of Aberfeldy or the spate in the dialogue of The Brigs of Ayr. The poet is as much at home in the presence of this flood as by his trottin’ burn’s meander. Familiar with all the seasons he represents the phases of a northern winter with a frequency characteristic of his clime and of his fortunes; her tempests became anthems in his verse, and the sounding woods raise his thoughts to Him that walketh on the wings of the wind; full of pity for the shelterless poor, the ourie cattle, the silly sheep, and the helpless birds, he yet reflects that the bitter blast is not so unkind as man’s ingratitude. This constant tendency to ascend above the fair or wild features of outward things, or to penetrate beneath them, to make them symbols, to endow them with a voice to speak for humanity, distinguishes Burns as a descriptive poet from the rest of his countrymen. As a painter he is rivalled by Dunbar and James I., more rarely by Thomson and Ramsay. The lilt of Tannahill’s finest verse is even more charming. But these writers rest in their art; their main care is for their own genius. The same is true in a minor degree of some of his great English successors. Keats has a palette of richer colours, but he seldom condescends to human nature’s daily food. Shelley floats in a thin air to stars and mountain tops, and vanishes from our gaze like his skylark. Byron, in the midst of his revolutionary fervour, never forgets that he himself belongs to the caste of Vere de Vere. Wordsworth’s placid affection and magnanimity stretch beyond mankind, and, as in Hart-leap-well and the Cuckoo, extend to bird and beast; he moralizes grandly on the vicissitudes of common life, but he does not enter into, because by right of superior virtue he places himself above them. From the Lyrical Ballads, it has been said, it does not appear that men eat or drink, marry or are given in marriage. We revere the monitor who, consciously good and great, gives us the dry light of truth, but we love the bard, nostrae deliciae, who is all fire—fire from heaven and Ayrshire earth mingling in the outburst of passion and of power, which is his poetry and the inheritance of his race. He had certainly neither culture nor philosophy enough to have written the Ode on the Recollections of Childhood, but to appreciate that ode requires an education. The sympathies of Burns, as broad as Wordsworth’s, are more intense; in turning his pages we feel ourselves more decidedly in the presence of one who joys with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn. He is never shallow, ever plain, and the expression of his feeling is so terse that it is always memorable. Of the people he speaks more directly for the people than any of our more considerable poets. Chaucer has a perfect hold of the homeliest phases of life, but he wants the lyric element, and the charm of his language has largely faded from untutored ears. Shakespeare, indeed, has at once a loftier vision and a wider grasp; for he sings of Thebes and Pelops line, of Agincourt and Philippi, as of Falstaff, and Snug the joiner, and the meanest flower that blows. But not even Shakespeare has put more thought into poetry which the most prosaic must appreciate than Burns has done. The latter moves in a narrower sphere and wants the strictly dramatic faculty, but its place is partly supplied by the vividness of his narrative. His realization of incident and character is manifested in the sketches in which the manners and prevailing fancies of his countrymen are immortalized in connexion with local scenery. Among those almost every variety of disposition finds its favourite. The quiet households of the kingdom have received a sort of apotheosis in the Cottar’s Saturday Night. It has been objected that the subject does not afford scope for the more daring forms of the author’s genius; but had he written no other poem, this heartful rendering of a good week’s close in a God-fearing home, sincerely devout, and yet relieved from all suspicion of sermonizing by its humorous touches, would have secured a permanent place in literature. It transcends Thomson and Beattie at their best, and will smell sweet like the actions of the just for generations to come.

Lovers of rustic festivity may hold that the poet’s greatest performance is his narrative of Halloween, which for easy vigour, fulness of rollicking life, blended truth and fancy, is unsurpassed in its kind. Campbell, Wilson, Hazlitt, Montgomery, Burns himself, and the majority of his critics, have recorded their preference for “Tam o’ Shanter,” where the weird superstitious element that has played so great a part in the imaginative work of this part of our island is brought more prominently forward. Few passages of description are finer than that of the roaring Doon and Alloway Kirk glimmering through the groaning trees; but the unique excellence of the piece consists in its variety, and a perfectly original combination of the terrible and the ludicrous. Like Goethe’s Walpurgis Nacht, brought into closer contact with real life, it stretches from the drunken humours of Christopher Sly to a world of fantasies almost as brilliant as those of the Midsummer Night’s Dream, half solemnized by the severer atmosphere of a sterner clime. The contrast between the lines Kings may be blest, &c., and those which follow, beginning But pleasures are like poppies spread, is typical of the perpetual antithesis of the author’s thought and life, in which, at the back of every revelry, he sees the shadow of a warning hand, and reads on the wall the writing, Omnia mutantur. With equal or greater confidence other judges have pronounced Burns’s masterpiece to be The Jolly Beggars. Certainly no other single production so illustrates his power of exalting what is insignificant, glorifying what is mean, and elevating the lowest details by the force of his genius. The form of the piece, says Carlyle, is a mere cantata, the theme the half-drunken snatches of a joyous band of vagabonds, while the grey leaves are floating on the gusts of the wind in the autumn of the year. But the whole is compacted, refined and poured forth in one flood of liquid harmony. It is light, airy and soft of movement, yet sharp and precise in its details; every face is a portrait, and the whole a group in clear photography. The blanket of the night is drawn aside; in full ruddy gleaming light these rough tatterdemalions are seen at their boisterous revel wringing from Fate another hour of wassail and good cheer. Over the whole is flung a half-humorous, half-savage satire—aimed, like a two-edged sword, at the laws and the law-breakers, in the acme of which the graceless crew are raised above the level of ordinary gipsies, footpads and rogues, and are made to sit on the hills like gods together, careless of mankind, and to launch their Titan thunders of rebellion against the world.

“A fig for those by law protected;
 Liberty’s a glorious feast;
Courts for cowards were erected,
 Churches built to please the priest.”

A similar mixture of drollery and defiance appears in the justly celebrated Address to the Deil, which, mainly whimsical, is relieved by touches of pathos curiously quaint. The effect of contrast, it has been observed, was never more happily displayed than in the conception of such a being straying in lonely places and loitering among trees, or in the familiarity with which the poet lectures so awful a personage,—we may add, than in the inimitable outbreak at the close—

“O would you tak a thought an’ men’.”

Carlyle, in reference to this passage, cannot resist the suggestion of a parallel from Sterne. He is the father of curses and lies, said Dr Slop, and is cursed and damned already. I am sorry for it, quoth my Uncle Toby.

Burns fared ill at the hands of those who were not sorry for it, and who repeated with glib complacency every terrible belief of the system in which they had been trained. The most scathing of his Satires, under which head fall many of his minor and frequent passages in his major pieces, are directed against the false pride of birth, and what he conceived to be the false pretences of religion. The apologue of Death and Dr Hornbook, The Ordination, the song No churchman am I for to rail and to write, the Address to the Unco Guid, Holy Willie, and above all The Holy Fair, with its savage caricature of an ignorant ranter of the time called Moodie, and others of like stamp, not unnaturally provoked offence. As regards the poet’s attitude towards some phases of Calvinism prevalent during his life, it has to be remarked that from the days of Dunbar there has been a degree of antagonism between Scottish verse and the more rigid forms of Scottish theology.

It must be admitted that in protesting against hypocrisy he has occasionally been led beyond the limits prescribed by good taste. He is at times abusive of those who differ from him. This, with other offences against decorum, which here and there disfigure his pages, can only be condoned by an appeal to the general tone of his writing, which is reverential. Burns had a firm faith in a Supreme Being, not as a vague mysterious Power; but as the Arbiter of human life. Amid the vicissitudes of his career he responds to the cottar’s summons, Let us worship God.

“An atheist’s laugh’s a poor exchange
 For Deity offended”

is the moral of all his verse, which treats seriously of religious matters. His prayers in rhyme give him a high place among secular Psalmists.

Like Chaucer, Burns was a great moralist, though a rough one. In the moments of his most intense revolt against conventional prejudice and sanctimonious affectation, he is faithful to the great laws which underlie change, loyal in his veneration for the cardinal virtues—Truth, Justice and Charity,—and consistent in the warnings, to which his experience gives an unhappy force, against transgressions of Temperance. In the Epistle to a Young Friend, the shrewdest advice is blended with exhortations appealing to the highest motive, that which transcends the calculation of consequences, and bids us walk in the straight path from the feeling of personal honour, and for the glorious privilege of being independent. Burns, like Dante, loved well because he hated, hated wickedness that hinders loving, and this feeling, as in the lines—Dweller in yon dungeon dark, sometimes breaks bounds; but his calmer moods are better represented by the well-known passages in the Epistle to Davie, in which he preaches acquiescence in our lot, and a cheerful acceptance of our duties in the sphere where we are placed. This philosophie douce, never better sung by Horace, is the prevailing refrain of our author’s Songs. On these there are few words to add to the acclaim of a century. They have passed into the air we breathe; they are so real that they seem things rather than words, or, nearer still, living beings. They have taken all hearts, because they are the breath of his own; not polished cadences, but utterances as direct as laughter or tears. Since Sappho loved and sang, there has been no such national lyrist as Burns. Fine ballads, mostly anonymous, existed in Scotland previous to his time; and shortly before a few authors had produced a few songs equal to some of his best. Such are Alexander Ross’s Wooed and Married, Lowe’s Mary’s Dream, Auld Robin Gray, The Land o’ the Leal and the two versions of The Flowers oʼ the Forest. From these and many of the older pieces in Ramsay’s collection, Burns admits to have derived copious suggestions and impulses. He fed on the past literature of his country as Chaucer on the old fields of English thought,and—

“Still the elements o’ sang,
In formless jumble, right and wrang,
Went floating in his brain.”

But he gave more than he received; he brought forth an hundredfold; he summed up the stray material of the past, and added so much of his own that one of the most conspicuous features of his lyrical genius is its variety in new paths. Between the first of war songs, composed in a storm on a moor, and the pathos of Mary in Heaven, he has made every chord in our northern life to vibrate. The distance from Duncan Gray to Auld Lang Syne is nearly as great as that from Falstaff to Ariel. There is the vehemence of battle, the wail of woe, the march of veterans red-wat-shod, the smiles of meeting, the tears of parting friends, the gurgle of brown burns, the roar of the wind through pines, the rustle of barley rigs, the thunder on the hill—all Scotland is in his verse. Let who will make her laws, Burns has made the songs, which her emigrants recall by the long wash of Australasian seas, in which maidens are wooed, by which mothers lull their infants, which return through open casements unto dying ears—they are the links, the watchwords, the masonic symbols of the Scots race.

The greater part of Burns’s verse was posthumously published, and, as he himself took no care to collect the scattered pieces of occasional verse, different editors have from time to time printed, as his, verses that must be regarded as spurious. Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns (Kilmarnock, 1786), was followed by an enlarged edition printed in Edinburgh in the next year. Other editions of this book were printed—in London (1787), an enlarged edition at Edinburgh (2 vols., 1793) and a reprint of this in 1794. Of a 1790 edition mentioned by Robert Chambers no traces can be found. Poems by Burns appeared originally in The Caledonian Mercury, The Edinburgh Evening Courant, The Edinburgh Herald, The Edinburgh Advertiser; the London papers, Stuart’s Star and Evening Advertiser (subsequently known as The Morning Star), The Morning Chronicle; and in the Edinburgh Magazine and The Scots Magazine. Many poems, most of which had first appeared elsewhere, were printed in a series of penny chap-books, Poetry Original and Select (Brash and Reid, Glasgow), and some appeared separately as broadsides. A series of tracts issued by Stewart and Meikle (Glasgow, 1796–1799) includes some Burns’s numbers, The Jolly Beggars, Holy Willie’s Prayer and other poems making their first appearance in this way. The seven numbers of this publication were reissued in January 1800 as The Poetical Miscellany. This was followed by Thomas Stewart’s Poems ascribed to Robert Burns (Glasgow, 1801). Burns’s songs appeared chiefly in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (6 vols., 1787–1803), which he appears after the first volume to have virtually edited, though the two last volumes were published only after his death; and in George Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (6 vols., 1793–1841). Only five of the songs done for Thomson appeared during the poet’s lifetime, and Thomson’s text cannot be regarded with confidence. The Hastie MSS. in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 22,307) include 162 songs, many of them in Burns’s handwriting; and the Dalhousie MS., at Brechin Castle, contains Burns’s correspondence with Thomson. For a full account of the songs see James C. Dick, The Songs of Robert Burns now first printed with the Melodies for which they were written (2 vols., 1903).

The items in Mr W. Craibe Angus’s Printed Works of Robert Burns (1899) number nine hundred and thirty. Only the more important collected editions can be here noticed. Dr Currie was the anonymous editor of the Works of Robert Burns; with an Account of his Life, and a Criticism on his Writings . . . (Liverpool, 1800). This was undertaken for the benefit of Burns’s family at the desire of his friends, Alexander Cunningham and John Syme. A second and amended edition appeared in 1801, and was followed by others, but Currie’s text is neither accurate nor complete. Additional matter appeared in Reliques of Robert Burns . . . by R. H. Cromek (London, 1808). In The Works of Robert Burns, With his Life by Allan Cunningham (8 vols., London, 1834) there are many additions and much biographical material. The Works of Robert Burns, edited by James Hogg and William Motherwell (5 vols., 1834–1836, Glasgow and Edinburgh), contains a life of the poet by Hogg, and some useful notes by Motherwell attempting to trace the sources of Burns’s songs. The Correspondence between Burns and Clarinda was edited by W. C. M‘Lehose (Edinburgh, 1843). An improved text of the poems was provided in the second Aldine Edition of the Poetical Works (3 vols., 1839), for which Sir H. Nicolas, the editor, made use of many original MSS. In the Life and Works of Robert Burns, edited by Robert Chambers (Edinburgh, 4 vols., 1851–1852; library edition, 1856–1857; new edition, revised by William Wallace, 1896), the poet’s works are given in chronological order, interwoven with letters and biography. The text was bowdlerized by Chambers, but the book contained much new and valuable information. Other well-known editions are those of George Gilfillan (2 vols., 1864); of Alexander Smith (Golden Treasury Series, London, 2 vols., 1865); of P. Hately Waddell (Glasgow, 1867); one published by Messrs Blackie & Son, with Dr Currie’s memoir and an essay by Prof. Wilson (1843–1844); of W. Scott Douglas (the Kilmarnock edition, 1876, and the library edition, 1877–1879), and of Andrew Lang, assisted by W. A. Craigie (London, 1896). The complete correspondence between Burns and Mrs Dunlop was printed in 1898.

A critical edition of the Poetry of Robert Burns, which may be regarded as definitive, and is provided with full notes and variant readings, was prepared by W. E. Henley and T. F. Henderson (4 vols., Edinburgh, 1896–1897; reprinted, 1901), and is generally known as the Centenary Burns. In vol. iii. the extent of Burns’s indebtedness to Scottish folk-song and his methods of adaptation are minutely discussed; vol. iv. contains an essay on Robert Burns. Life, Genius, Achievement, by W. E. Henley.

The chief original authority for Burns’s life is his own letters. The principal lives are to be found in the editions just mentioned. His biography has also been written by J. Gibson Lockhart (Life of Burns, Edinburgh, 1828); for the English Men of Letters series in 1879 by Prof. J. Campbell Shairp; and by Sir Leslie Stephen in the Dictionary of National Biography (vol. viii., 1886). Among the more important essays on Burns are those by Thomas Carlyle (Edinburgh Review, December 1828); by John Nichol, the writer of the above article (W. Scott Douglas’s edition of Burns); by R. L. Stevenson (Familiar Studies of Men and Books); by Auguste Angellier (Robert Burns. La vie et les œuvres, 2 vols., Paris, 1893); by Lord Rosebery (Robert Burns: Two Addresses in Edinburgh, 1896); by J. Logie Robertson (in In Scottish Fields, Edin., 1890, and Furth in Field, Edin., 1894); and T. F. Henderson (Robert Burns, 1904). There is a selected bibliography in chronological order in W. A. Craigie’s Primer of Burns (1896).

(J.N.) [John Nichol]

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

BURNS, Robert (1759-1796) by Gerard Carruthers

In the entry for Robert Burns in the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, John Nichol begins with Thomas Carlyle’s traversing of Burns’s formative circumstances from a review-essay—much reprinted over the next century—first published in the Edinburgh Review of 1828. Reviewing John Gibson Lockhart’s large biography of Burns of the same year, Carlyle carries on a tightly focussed critical tradition that can be traced back through Lockhart to the first major biography of the poet, that of James Currie in 1800. This tradition concerned what simultaneous advantages and disadvantages had enabled Burns’s talent, a context that remains a dominant down to the twenty-first century in both critical and popular discussion. Revisionism from the later twenty century has witnessed demurring murmurings about the integrity of Burns’s father, William Burness, with the suggestion of court papers seen by a few, although not now accessible, where the poet’s father was less than financially honest in his business dealings. More certainly, another strand of reappraisal has emphasised the fact that Burns and his slightly younger brother, Gilbert, had in effect a private tutor, John Murdoch, and several sets of other formal schooling as set out by Nichol in his next paragraph, contradicting Carlyle’s summation of cheap school system out of reach to Burns.

Robert Burns
Nasmyth, Alexander. Robert Burns. 1821, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Via Murdoch and other schooling, especially in the time the Burness family had their farm at Lochlea, near Tarbolton, Robert and his brother had been exposed fairly extensively to a couple of hundred years of English literary prose, much British poetry, Shakespeare, some Latin and French, and also the geometry mentioned by Nichol. The latter probably points to some sagacious planning by William for his sons. It was part of a mathematical skill set, along with a solid cultural education, that helped Robert to employment in the excise service, where most of his colleagues came from a slightly higher social standing.

Nichol acknowledges in his Britannica entry the patronage which became open to Burns, partly through his poetry success, and the fact that the non-desk-bound excise career provided the poet with the opportunity to collect and improve many songs working with the editor James Thomson. Burns’s other great editor, someone with whom he collaborated much more, James Johnson, but he is mentioned only in Nichol’s footnotes. The poet’s collaborative antiquarian work in song with Johnson and others is a creative, associational context which we are much more likely to emphasise presently (as opposed to the lone Romantic genius or the writer not supported enough during his lifetime by Scotland). A critical tradition, not shared by Nichol, but appearing after his article (written in fact in the late nineteenth century), and long-lasting during the twentieth century, sees the excise service providing an unamenable and politically-compromised context for Burns. In fact, importantly, it provides much more: social and creative opportunity for the poet.

As Nichol tells us, Burns’s farm at Ellisland, Dumfriesshire, from 1789, funded in part by the proceeds from sales of his first collections of poetry, was a venture that did not work for him financially, even though some of his best work was composed there. At Ellisland, the poor physical health engendered in his youthful farm labour earlier in Ayrshire recurred, and in this phase of his life yet again his nervous constitution became an issue. Though not much acknowledged in Nichol’s notes, but coming perhaps through the other biographies and editions he cites from the later nineteenth century, he is in receipt of writing that offers diagnosis of Burns’s health from the previous half century. This substantial corpus of Burnsian medical writings includes the possibility of Burns’s depression, a reading of the poet which has come much more to the fore in the early decades of the twenty-first century. At the same time, Nichol continues the earliest biographical emphasis, as found in Currie, of Burns’s thirst for stimulants, which biographers in recent decades have tended to debunk. In fact, Burns’s relatively early death was likely due to heart disease, with origins via rheumatic fever.

Nichol is part of that long tradition of situating Burns within the cultural and physical environment of Scotlanfirstnamed, where the national culture is the great enabler of his output. A more nuanced and epistemologically complex criticism presently would be as likely to read the writer deploying his Scottish culture, rather than it deploying him. Nichol also sees the poet as part of the watershed British Romantic movement, asserting a new dignity for [. . .] simplest themes, seeing him influenced by the nature writing of the earlier James Thomson but better seen as a forerunner of Wordsworth. Burns the Romantic was a strong idea through the nineteenth century, falling out of favour and only properly re-emerging in the present century. Nichol captures well the engagement with nature by Burns a theme of enduring interest from the age of sentiment and down to the present with eco-criticism. However, he makes Burns’s nature writing sound rather episodic, lyrically rapturous even, when—whether in poem such as To A Louse or Tam o’ Shanter—his texts have much more extensively a cogent philosophic arc. In this context, more recent scholarship sees Burns as a figure of the Scottish Enlightenment (a term unknown to Nichol as coined only in 1900) influenced by the writings of the likes of Adam Smith (Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments being one of Burns’s favourite books).

Nichol is aware of, but makes too little of, Burns’s party-battles within late eighteenth-century: the poet being of the Moderate, as opposed to the more conservative Calvinist, Popular party. Largely lost sight of by Nichol’s time, and only beginning to be recaptured, this is part of Burns’ intellectual context—culturally as well as theologically—gives shape to his fraternal associations and his creative output. Burns was not merely in the likes of Holy Willie’s Prayer—lashing religious hypocrisy in a vacuum—but was involved in intense Ayrshire disputes about the shape of religious life, something, as Nichol attests, that Burns, as the sincere Christian, took most seriously.

Nichol knows where much of the juicy stuff lies: the songs prompted by local kirk politics and by his excise service as well as by the turbulent post-revolutionary 1790s. He has too little to say about the latter as well as Burns’s afterlife, including an expansive international reputation, all of which have become important facets of Robert Burns Studies by 2022.

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