For other people named Robert Burns, see Robert Burns (disambiguation).
Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796), also known as Rabbie Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, Ploughman Poet and various other names and epithets,[nb 1] was a Scottish poet and 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 writings his political or civil commentary is often at its bluntest.
He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism, and 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. In 2009 he was chosen as the greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a vote run by Scottish television channel STV.
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 (the last day of the 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", "Tam o' Shanter" and "Ae Fond Kiss".
Burns was born two miles (3 km) south of Ayr, in Alloway, the eldest of the seven children of William Burnes (1721–1784), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar in the Mearns, and Agnes Broun (1732–1820), the daughter of a Kirkoswald tenant farmer.
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 Burnes sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre (280,000 m2) 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 in mid-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 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thompson (born 1762), to whom he wrote two songs, "Now Westlin' Winds" and "I Dream'd I Lay".
Despite his ability and character, William Burnes was consistently unfortunate, and migrated with his large family from farm to farm without ever being able to improve his circumstances. At Whitsun, 1777, he 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 William Burnes'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 Bachelors' Club the following year. 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.
Robert Burns was initiated into masonic Lodge St David, Tarbolton, on 4 July 1781, when he was 22.
In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine to learn to become a flax-dresser, but during the workers' celebrations for New Year 1781/1782 (which included Burns as a participant) the flax shop caught fire and was burnt to the ground. This venture accordingly came to an end, and Burns went home to Lochlea farm. During this time he met and befriended Captain Richard Brown who encouraged him to become a poet.
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 Burnes 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. In mid-1784 Burns 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.
His first child, Elizabeth "Bess" Burns (1785–1817), was born to his mother's servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760–circa 1799), while he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, who became pregnant with twins in March 1786. Burns signed a paper attesting his marriage to Jean, but her father "was in the greatest distress, and fainted away". To avoid disgrace, her parents sent her to live with her uncle in Paisley. Although Armour's father initially forbade it, they were eventually married in 1788. Armour bore him nine children, only three of whom survived infancy.
Burns was in financial difficulties due to his want of success in farming, and to make enough money to support a family he took up a friend's offer of work in Jamaica. Burns was to be the bookkeeper for Charles Douglas who ran the Springbank estate for his brother, the Earl (?) of Mure. The estate was about 1.5 miles SSW of Port Antonio, Portland parish, on the NE coast of Jamaica. It may have been Springbank, but it is now Spring Bank Rd that leads to the ruins of the great house. It has been suggested that that was a position for a single man, and that he would live in rustic conditions, not likely to be living in the great house at a salary of £30 per annum. The position that Burns accepted was as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. Burns's egalitarian views were typified by "The Slave's Lament" six years later, but in 1786 there was little public awareness of the abolitionist movement that began about that time.
At about the same time, Burns fell in love with Mary Campbell (1763–1786), whom he had seen in church while he was still living in Tarbolton. She was born near Dunoon and had lived in Campbeltown before moving to work in Ayrshire. He dedicated the poems "The Highland Lassie O", "Highland Mary", and "To Mary in Heaven" to her. His song "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, And leave auld Scotia's shore?" suggests that they planned to emigrate to Jamaica together. Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that on 14 May 1786 they exchanged Bibles and plighted their troth over the Water of Fail in a traditional form of marriage. Soon afterwards Mary Campbell left her work in Ayrshire, went to the seaport of Greenock, and sailed home to her parents in Campbeltown.
In October 1786, Mary and her father sailed from Campbeltown to visit her brother in Greenock. Her brother fell ill with typhus, which she also caught while nursing him. She died of typhus on 20 or 21 October 1786 and was buried there.
As Burns lacked the funds to pay for his passage to the West Indies, Gavin Hamilton suggested that he should "publish his poems in the mean time by subscription, as a likely way of getting a little money to provide him more liberally in necessaries for Jamaica." On 3 April Burns sent proposals for publishing his Scotch Poems to John Wilson, a local printer in Kilmarnock, who published these proposals on 14 April 1786, on the same day that Jean Armour's father tore up the paper in which Burns attested his marriage to Jean. To obtain a certificate that he was a free bachelor, Burns agreed on 25 June to stand for rebuke in the Mauchline kirk for three Sundays. He transferred his share in Mossgiel farm to his brother Gilbert on 22 July, and on 30 July wrote to tell his friend John Richmond that, "Armour has got a warrant to throw me in jail until I can find a warrant for an enormous sum ... I am wandering from one friend's house to another."
On 31 July 1786 John Wilson published the volume of works by Robert Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect. Known as the Kilmarnock volume, it sold for 3 shillings and contained much of his best writing, including "The Twa Dogs", "Address to the Deil", "Halloween", "The Cotter's Saturday Night", "To a Mouse", "Epitaph for James Smith", 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.
Burns postponed his planned emigration to Jamaica on 1 September, and was at Mossgiel two days later when he learnt that Jean Armour had given birth to twins. On 4 September Thomas Blacklock wrote a letter expressing admiration for the poetry in the Kilmarnock volume, and suggesting an enlarged second edition. A copy of it was passed to Burns, who later recalled, "I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland – 'The Gloomy night is gathering fast' – when a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction."
On 27 November 1786 Burns borrowed a pony and set out for Edinburgh. On 14 December William Creech issued subscription bills for the first Edinburgh edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, which was published on 17 April 1787. Within a week of this event, Burns had sold his copyright to Creech for 100 guineas. For the edition, Creech commissioned Alexander Nasmyth to paint the oval bust-length portrait now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which was engraved to provide a frontispiece for the book. Nasmyth had come to know Burns and his fresh and appealing image has become the basis for almost all subsequent representations of the poet. In Edinburgh, he was received as an equal by the city's men of letters—including Dugald Stewart, Robertson, Blair and others—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
The new edition of his poems brought Burns £400. His stay in the city also 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 many years until a rift developed. 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. He also had an affair with a servant girl, Margaret "May" Cameron. His relationship with Nancy concluded in 1791 with a final meeting in Edinburgh before she sailed to Jamaica for what turned out 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.
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 was published in 1787 and included three songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume two, and he ended 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.
Main article: Ellisland Farm, Dumfries
On his return from Edinburgh in February 1788, he resumed his relationship with Jean Armour and took a lease on Ellisland Farm, Dumfriesshire, settling there in June. He also trained as a gauger or exciseman in case farming continued to be unsuccessful. He was appointed to duties in Customs and Excise in 1789 and eventually gave up the farm in 1791. Meanwhile, in November 1790, he had written "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. He did however accept membership of the Royal Company of Archers in 1792.
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 Scots Musical Museum. Arguably his claim to immortality chiefly rests on these volumes, which placed him in the front rank of lyric poets. As a songwriter he provided his own lyrics, sometimes adapted from traditional words. He put words to Scottish folk melodies and airs which he collected, and composed his own arrangements of the music including modifying tunes or recreating melodies on the basis of fragments. In letters he explained that he preferred simplicity, relating songs to spoken language which should be sung in traditional ways. The original instruments would be fiddle and the guitar of the period which was akin to a cittern, but the transcription of songs for piano has resulted in them usually being performed in classical concert or music hall styles.
Thomson as a publisher commissioned arrangements of "Scottish, Welsh and Irish Airs" by such eminent composers of the day as Franz Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven, with new lyrics. The contributors of lyrics included Burns. While such arrangements had wide popular appeal, Beethoven's music was more advanced and difficult to play than Thomson intended.
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".
Failing health and death
Burns's worldly prospects were perhaps better than they had ever been; but he had become soured, and 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 political views also came to the notice of his employers and in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the Crown, Burns joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers in March 1795. As his health began to give way, he 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 possible rheumatic heart condition.
On the morning of 21 July 1796, Burns died in Dumfries, at the age of 37. The funeral took place on Monday 25 July 1796, the day that his son Maxwell was born. He was at first buried in the far corner of St. Michael's Churchyard in Dumfries; a simple "slab of freestone" was erected as his gravestone by Jean Armour, which some felt insulting to his memory. His body was eventually moved to its final location in the same cemetery, the Burns Mausoleum, in September 1817. The body of his widow Jean Armour was buried with his in 1834.
Armour had taken steps to secure his personal property, partly by liquidating two promissory notes amounting to fifteen pounds sterling (about 1,100 pounds at 2009 prices). The family went to the Court of Session in 1798 with a plan to support his surviving children by publishing a four-volume edition of his complete works and a biography written by Dr. James Currie. Subscriptions were raised to meet the initial cost of publication, which was in the hands of Thomas Cadell and William Davies in London and William Creech, bookseller in Edinburgh. Hogg records that fund-raising for Burns's family was embarrassingly slow, and it took several years to accumulate significant funds through the efforts of John Syme and Alexander Cunningham.
Burns was posthumously given the freedom of the town of Dumfries. Hogg records that Burns was given the freedom of the Burgh of Dumfries on 4 June 1787, 9 years before his death, and was also made an Honorary Burgess of Dumfries.
Through his twelve children, Burns has over 600 living descendants as of 2012.
Burns's style is marked by spontaneity, directness, and sincerity, and ranges from the tender intensity of some of his lyrics through the humour of "Tam o' Shanter" and the satire of "Holy Willie's Prayer" and "The Holy Fair".
Burns's poetry drew upon a substantial familiarity with 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).
The strong emotional highs and lows associated with many of Burns's poems have led some, such as Burns biographer Robert Crawford, to suggest that he suffered from manic depression—a hypothesis that has been supported by analysis of various samples of his handwriting. Burns himself referred to suffering from episodes of what he called "blue devilism". The National Trust for Scotland has downplayed the suggestion on the grounds that evidence is insufficient to support the claim.
Burns is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. His direct literary influences in the use of Scots in poetry were Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. 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 influenced later Scottish writers, especially Hugh MacDiarmid, who fought to dismantle what he felt had become a sentimental cult that dominated Scottish literature.
Burns had a significant influence on Alexander McLachlan and some influence on Robert Service. While this may not be so obvious in Service's English verse, which is Kiplingesque, it is more readily apparent in his Scots verse.
Scottish Canadians have embraced Robert Burns as a kind of patron poet and mark his birthday with festivities. 'Robbie Burns Day' is celebrated from Newfoundland and Labrador to Nanaimo. Every year, Canadian newspapers publish biographies of the poet, listings of local events and buffet menus. Universities mark the date in a range of ways: McMaster University library organized a special collection and Simon Fraser University's Centre for Scottish Studies organized a marathon reading of Burns's poetry.Senator Heath Macquarrie quipped of Canada's first Prime Minister that "While the lovable [Robbie] Burns went in for wine, women and song, his fellow Scot, John A. did not chase women and was not musical!" 'Gung Haggis Fat Choy' is a hybrid of Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day, celebrated in Vancouver since the late 1990s.
In January 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was invited to attend a Robert Burns celebration by Robert Crawford; and if unable to attend, send a toast. Lincoln composed a toast.
An example of Burns's literary influence in the US is seen in the choice by novelist John Steinbeck of the title of his 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men, taken from a line in the second-to-last stanza of "To a Mouse": "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." Burns's influence on American vernacular poets such as James Whitcomb Riley and Frank Lebby Stanton has been acknowledged by their biographers. When asked for the source of his greatest creative inspiration, singer songwriter Bob Dylan selected Burns's 1794 song "A Red, Red Rose" as the lyric that had the biggest effect on his life.
The author J. D. Salinger used protagonist Holden Caulfield's misinterpretation of Burns's poem "Comin' Through the Rye" as his title and a main interpretation of Caulfield's grasping to his childhood in his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. The poem, actually about a rendezvous, is thought by Caulfield to be about saving people from falling out of childhood.
Burns became the "people's poet" of Russia. In Imperial Russia Burns was translated into Russian and became a source of inspiration for the ordinary, oppressed Russian people. In Soviet Russia, he was elevated as the archetypal poet of the people. As a great admirer of the egalitarian ethos behind the American and French Revolutions who expressed his own egalitarianism in poems such as his "Birthday Ode for George Washington" or his "Is There for Honest Poverty" (commonly known as "A Man's a Man for a' that"), Burns was well placed for endorsement by the Communist regime as a "progressive" artist. A new translation of Burns begun in 1924 by Samuil Marshak proved enormously popular, selling over 600,000 copies. The USSR honoured Burns with a commemorative stamp in 1956. He remains popular in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Landmarks and organisations
Burns clubs have been founded worldwide. The first one, known as The Mother Club, was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. The club set its original objectives as "To cherish the name of Robert Burns; to foster a love of his writings, and generally to encourage an interest in the Scottish language and literature." The club also continues to have local charitable work as a priority.
Burns's birthplace in Alloway is now a public museum known as Burns Cottage. His house in Dumfries is operated as the Robert Burns House, and the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries features more exhibits about his life and works. Ellisland Farm in Auldgirth, which he owned from 1788 to 1791, is maintained as a working farm with a museum and interpretation centre by the Friends of Ellisland Farm.
Significant 19th-century monuments to him stand in Alloway, Leith, and Dumfries. An early 20th-century replica of his birthplace cottage belonging to the Burns Club Atlanta stands in Atlanta, Georgia. These are part of a large list of Burns memorials and statues around the world.
Organisations include the Robert Burns Fellowship of the University of Otago in New Zealand, and the Burns Club Atlanta in the United States. Towns named after Burns include Burns, New York, and Burns, Oregon.
In the suburb of Summerhill, Dumfries, the majority of the streets have names with Burns connotations. A British Rail Standard Class 7 steam locomotive was named after him, along with a later Class 87 electric locomotive, No. 87035. On 24 September 1996, Class 156 diesel unit 156433 was named "The Kilmarnock Edition" by Jimmy Knapp, General Secretary of the RMT union, at Girvan Station to launch the new "Burns Line" services between Girvan, Ayr, and Kilmarnock, supported by Strathclyde Passenger Transport (SPT).
Several streets surrounding the Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.'s Back Bay Fens in Boston, Massachusetts, were designated with Burns connotations. A life-size statue was dedicated in Burns's honour within the Back Bay Fens of the West Fenway neighbourhood in 1912. It stood until 1972 when it was relocated downtown, sparking protests from the neighbourhood, literary fans, and preservationists of Olmsted's vision for the Back Bay Fens.
There is a statue of Burns in The Octagon, Dunedin, in the same pose as the one in Dundee. Dunedin's first European settlers were Scots; Thomas Burns, a nephew of Burns, was one of Dunedin's founding fathers.
A crater on Mercury is named after Burns.
In November 2012, Burns was awarded the title Honorary Chartered Surveyor by The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the only posthumous membership so far granted by the institution.
The oldest statue of Burns is in the town of Camperdown, Victoria. It now hosts an annual Robert Burns Scottish Festival in celebration of the statue and its history.
Stamps and currency
The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to honour Burns with a commemorative stamp, marking the 160th anniversary of his death in 1956.
The Royal Mail has issued postage stamps commemorating Burns three times. In 1966, two stamps were issued, priced fourpence and one shilling and threepence, both carrying Burns's portrait. In 1996, an issue commemorating the bicentenary of his death comprised four stamps, priced 19p, 25p, 41p and 60p and including quotes from Burns's poems. On 22 January 2009, two stamps were issued by the Royal Mail to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth.
Burns was pictured on the Clydesdale Bank £5 note from 1971 to 2009. On the reverse of the note was a vignette of a field mouse and a wild rose in reference to Burns's poem "To a Mouse". The Clydesdale Bank's notes were redesigned in 2009 and, since then, he has been pictured on the front of their £10 note. In September 2007, the Bank of Scotland redesigned their banknotes to feature famous Scottish bridges. The reverse side of new £5 features Brig o' Doon, famous from Burns's poem "Tam o' Shanter", and pictures the statue of Burns at that site.
In 1996, the Isle of Man issued a four-coin set of Crown (5/-) pieces on the themes of "Auld Lang Syne", Edinburgh Castle, Revenue Cutter, and Writing Poems. Tristan da Cunha produced a gold £5 Bicentenary Coin.
In 2009 the Royal Mint issued a commemorative two pound coin featuring a quote from "Auld Lang Syne".
In 1976, singer Jean Redpath, in collaboration with composer Serge Hovey, started to record all of Burns's songs, with a mixture of traditional and Burns's own compositions. The project ended when Hovey died, after seven of the planned twenty-two volumes were completed. Redpath also recorded four cassettes of Burns's songs (re-issued as 3 CDs) for the Scots Musical Museum.
In 1996, a musical about Burns's life called Red Red Rose won third place at a competition for new musicals in Denmark. Robert Burns was played by John Barrowman. On 25 January 2008, a musical play about the love affair between Robert Burns and Nancy McLehose entitled Clarinda premiered in Edinburgh before touring Scotland. The plan was that Clarinda would make its American premiere in Atlantic Beach, FL, at Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre on 25 January 2013.Eddi Reader has released two albums, Sings the Songs of Robert Burns and The Songs of Robert Burns Deluxe Edition, about the work of the poet.
Alfred B. Street wrote the words and Henry Tucker wrote the music for a song called Our Own Robbie Burns in 1856.
Main article: Burns supper
Burns Night, in effect a second national day, is celebrated on Burns's birthday, 25 January, with Burns suppers around the world, and is more widely observed in Scotland than the official national day, St. Andrew's Day. The first Burns supper in The Mother Club in Greenock was held on what was thought to be his birthday on 29 January 1802; in 1803 it was discovered from the Ayr parish records that the correct date was 25 January 1759.
The format of Burns suppers has changed little since. The basic format starts with a general welcome and announcements, followed with the Selkirk Grace. After the grace comes the piping and cutting of the haggis, when Burns's famous "Address to a Haggis" is read and the haggis is cut open. The event usually allows for people to start eating just after the haggis is presented. At the end of the meal, a series of toasts, often including a 'Toast to the Lassies', and replies are made. This is when the toast to "the immortal memory", an overview of Burns's life and work, is given. The event usually concludes with the singing of "Auld Lang Syne".
In 2009, STV ran a television series and public vote on who was "The Greatest Scot" of all time. Robert Burns won, narrowly beating William Wallace. A bust of Burns is in the Hall of Heroes of the National Wallace Monument in Stirling.
- ^Robbie Burns Day is all about hurling haggis, singing songs and Scotch | National Post
- ^O'Hagan, A: "The People's Poet", The Guardian, 19 January 2008.
- ^"Scotland's National Bard". Robert Burns 2008. Scottish Executive. 25 January 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2009.
- ^"Burnes, William". The Burns Encyclopedia. Retrieved 25 April 2011.
- ^"Robert Burns 1759 – 1796". The Robert Burns World Federation. Retrieved 25 April 2011.
- ^"Mauchline kirk session records, National Archives of Scotland". 'The Legacy of Robert Burns' feature on the National Archives of Scotland website. National Archives of Scotland. 1 July 2009. Retrieved 21 July 2009.
- ^ abBurns 1993, p. 19
- ^ abc"Highland Mary (Mary Campbell)". Famous Sons and Daughters of Greenock. Nostalgic Greenock. Archived from the original on 20 February 2010. Retrieved 17 January 2010.
- ^"Feature on The Poet Robert Burns". Robert Burns History. Scotland.org. 13 January 2004. Archived from the original on 27 February 2009. Retrieved 10 June 2009.
- ^"Folkin' For Jamaica: Sly, Robbie and Robert Burns". The Play Ethic. 1 January 2009. Retrieved 10 June 2009.
- ^Burns 1993, pp. 19–20
- ^ abcBurns 1993, p. 20
- ^Rev. Thos. Thomson (1856). Chambers, R, ed. "Significant Scots – Thomas Blacklock". Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen. Blackie and Son. Retrieved 17 January 2010.
- ^National Galleries of Scotland. "Artists A-Z − − N − Artists A-Z − Online Collection − Collection − National Galleries of Scotland".
- ^ abRobert Burns: "Poetry – Poems – Poets." Retrieved on 24 September 2010
- ^"Diploma of the Royal Company of Archers". Burns' Scotland. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
- ^David Sibbald. "Robert Burns the Song Writer".
- ^"Folksong Arrangements by Haydn / Folksong Arrangements by Haydn and Beethoven / Projects / Home – Trio van Beethoven".
- ^Including Robbie Burns,Scotland's favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, Robden of Solway Firth and simply the Bard.
Born on 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, to William and Agnes Brown Burnes, Robert Burns followed his father's example by becoming a tenant farmer. Unlike William Burnes, however, Burns was able to escape the vicissitudes and vagaries of the soil in two ways: toward the end of his life he became an excise collector in Dumfries, where he died in 1796; and throughout his life he was a practicing poet. As a poet he recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice and belief in such a way as to transcend the particularities of his inspiration, becoming finally the national poet of Scotland. Although he did not set out to achieve that designation, he clearly and repeatedly expressed his wish to be called a Scots bard, to extol his native land in poetry and song, as he does in "The Answer":
Ev'n then a wish (I mind its power)
A wish, that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast;
That I for poor auld Scotland's sake
Some useful plan, or book could make,
Or sing a sang at least.
And perhaps he had an intimation that his "wish" had some basis in reality when he described his Edinburgh reception in a letter of 7 December 1786 to his friend Gavin Hamilton: "I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin's and Aberdeen Almanacks.... and by all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world."
That he retains the designations "national poet of Scotland" today owes much to his position as the culmination of the Scottish literary tradition, a tradition stretching back to the court makars, to Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, to the seventeenth-century vernacular writers from James VI of Scotland to William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, to early-eighteenth-century forerunners such as Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. Burns is often seen as the end of that literary line both because his brilliance and achievement could not be equaled and, more particularly, because the Scots vernacular in which he wrote some of his celebrated works was—even as he used it—becoming less and less intelligible to the majority of readers, who were already infected with English culture and language. The shift toward English cultural and linguistic hegemony had begun in 1603 with the Union of the Crowns when James VI of Scotland became James I of Great Britain; it had continued in 1707 with the merging of the Scottish and English Parliaments in London; and it was virtually a fait accompli by Burns's day save for pockets of regional culture and dialect. Thus, one might say that Burns remains the National Poet of Scotland because Scottish literature ceased with him, thereafter yielding poetry in English or in a pale Anglo-Scots or in inferior and slavish imitations of Burns.
Burns, however, has been viewed alternately as the beginning of another literary tradition: he is often called a pre-Romantic poet for his sensitivity to nature, his high valuation of feeling and emotion, his spontaneity, his fierce stance for freedom and against authority, his individualism, and his antiquarian interest in old songs and legends. The many backward glances of Romantic poets to Burns, as well as their critical comments and pilgrimages to the locales of Burns's life and work, suggest the validity of connecting Burns with that pervasive European cultural movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which shared with him a concern for creating a better world and for cultural renovation.
Nonetheless, the very qualities which seem to link Burns to the Romantics were logical responses to the eighteenth-century Scotland into which he was born. And his humble, agricultural background made him in some ways a spokesperson for every Scot, especially the poor and disenfranchised. He was aware of humanity's unequal condition and wrote of it and of his hope for a better world of equality throughout his life in epistle, poem, and song—perhaps most eloquently in the recurring comparison of rich and poor in the song "For A' That and A' That," which resoundingly affirms the humanity of the honest, hard-working, poor, man: "The Honest man, though e'er sae poor, / Is king o' men for a' that."
Burns is an important and complex literary personage for several reasons: his place in the Scottish literary tradition, his pre-Romantic proclivities, his position as a human being from the less-privileged classes imaging a better world. To these may be added his particular artistry, especially his ability to create encapsulating and synthesizing lines, phrases, and stanzas which continue to speak to and sum up the human condition. His recurring and poignant hymns to relationships are illustrative, as in the lines from the song beginning "Ae fond Kiss":
Had we never lov'd sae kindly,
Had we never lov'd sae blindly!
Never met—or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
The Scotland in which Burns lived was a country in transition, sometimes in contradiction, on several fronts. The political scene was in flux, the result of the 1603 and 1707 unions which had stripped Scotland of its autonomy and finally all but muzzled the Scottish voice, as decisions and directives issued from London rather than from Edinburgh. A sense of loss led to questions and sometimes to actions, as in the Jacobite rebellions early in the eighteenth century. Was there a national identity? Should aspects of Scottish uniqueness be collected and enshrined? Should Scotland move ahead, adopting English manners, language, and cultural forms? No single answer was given to any of these questions. But change was afoot: Scots moved closer to an English norm, particularly as it was used by those in the professions, religion, and elite circles; "think in English, feel in Scots" seems to have been a widespread practice, which limited the communicative role, as well as the intelligibility, of Scots. For a time, however, remnants of the Scots dialect met with approbation among certain circles. A loose-knit movement to preserve evidences of Scottish culture embraced products that had the stamp of Scotland upon them, lauding Burns as a poet from the soil; assembling, editing, and collecting Scottish ballads and songs; sometimes accepting James Macpherson's Ossianic offerings; and lauding poetic Jacobitism. This movement was both nationalistic and antiquarian, recognizing Scottish identity through the past and thereby implicitly accepting contemporary assimilation.
Perhaps the most extraordinary transition occurring between 1780 and 1830 was the economic shift from agriculture to industry that radically altered social arrangements and increased social inequities. While industrialization finished the job agricultural changes had set the transition in motion earlier in the eighteenth century. Agriculture in Scotland had typically followed a widespread European form known as runrig, wherein groups of farmers rented and worked a piece of land which was periodically re-sub-divided to insure diachronic if not synchronic equity. Livestock was removed to the hills for grazing during the growing season since there were no enclosures. A subsistence arrangement, this form of agriculture dictated settlement patterns and life possibilities and was linked inextricably to the ebb and flow and unpredictable vicissitudes of the seasons. The agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century introduced new crops, such as sown grasses and turnips, which made wintering over of animals profitable; advocated enclosing fields to keep livestock out; developed new equipment—in particular the iron plow—and improved soil preparation; and generally suggested economies of scale. Large landowners, seeing profit in making "improvements," displaced runrig practices and their adherents, broadening the social and economic gap between landowner and former tenant; the latter frequently became a farm worker. Haves and have-nots became more clearly delineated; "improvements" depended on capital and access to descriptive literature. Many small tenant farmers foundered during the transition, including both Burnes and his father.
Along with the gradual change in agriculture and shift to industry there was a concomitant shift from rural to urban spheres of influence. The move from Scots to greater reliance on English was accelerated by the availability of cheap print made possible by the Industrial Revolution. Print became the medium of choice, lessening the power of oral culture's artistic forms and aesthetic structures; print, a visual medium, fostered linear structures and perceptual frameworks, replacing in part the circular patterns and preferences of the oral world.
Two forces, however, served to keep change from being a genuine revolution and made it more nearly a transformation by fits and starts: the Presbyterian church and traditional culture. Presbyterianism was established as the Kirk of Scotland in 1668. Although fostering education, the printed word, and, implicitly, English for specific religious ends, and thus seeming to support change, religion was largely a force for constraint and uniformity. Religion was aided but simultaneously undermined by traditional culture, the inherited ways of living, perceiving, and creating. Traditional culture was conservative, preferring the old ways--agricultural subsistence or near subsistence patterns and oral forms of information and artistry conveyed in customs, songs, and stories. But if both religion and traditional culture worked to maintain the status quo, traditional culture was finally more flexible: as inherited, largely oral knowledge and art always adapting to fit the times, traditional culture was less rigid. It was diverse and it celebrated freedom.
Scotland's upheavals were in many ways Burns's upheavals as well: he embraced cultural nationalism to celebrate Scotland in poem and song; he struggled as a tenant farmer without the requisite capital and know-how in the age of "improvement"; he combined the oral world of his childhood and region with the education his father arranged through an "adventure school"; he accepted, but resented, the moral judgments of the Kirk against himself and friends such as Gavin Hamilton; he knew the religious controversies which pitted moderate against conservative on matters of church control and belief; he reveled in traditional culture's balladry, song, proverbs, and customs. He was a man of his time, and his success as poet, songwriter, and human being owes much to the way he responded to the world around him. Some have called him the typical Scot, Everyman.
Burns began his career as a local poet writing for a local, known audience to whom he looked for immediate response, as do all artists in a traditional context. He wrote on topics of appeal both to himself and to his artistic constituency, often in a wonderfully appealing conversational style.
Burns's early life was spent in the southwest of Scotland, where his father worked as an estate gardener in Alloway, near Ayr. Subsequently William Burnes leased successively two farms in the region, Mount Oliphant nearby and Lochlie near Tarbolton. Between 1765 and 1768 Burns attended an "adventure" school established by his father and several neighbors with John Murdock as teacher, and in 1775 he attended a mathematics school in Kirkoswald. These formal and more or less institutionalized bouts of education were extended at home under the tutelage of his father. Burns was identified as odd because he always carried a book; a countrywoman in Dunscore, who had seen Burns riding slowly among the hills reading, once remarked, "That's surely no a good man, for he has aye a book in his hand!" The woman no doubt assumed an oral norm, the medium of traditional culture.
Life on a pre-or semi-improved farm was backbreaking and frequently heartbreaking, since bad weather might wipe out a year's effort. Bad seed would not prosper even in the best-prepared soil. Rain and damp, though necessary for crop growth, were often "too much of a good thing." Burns grew up knowing the vagaries of farming and understanding full well both mental preparation and long days of physical labor. His father had married late and was thus older than many men with a household of children; he was also less physically resilient and less able to endure the tenant farmer's lot. Bad seed and rising rents at various times spelled failure to his ventures. At the time of his approaching death and a disastrous end to the Lochlie lease, Burns and his brother secretly leased Mossgiel Farm near Mauchline. Burns was twenty-five.
The death of his father, the family's patriarchal force for constraint in religion, education, and morality, freed Burns. He quickly became recognized as a rhymer, sometimes signing himself after the farm as Rab Mossgiel. The midwife's prophecy at his birth--that he would be much attracted to the lasses--became a reality; in 1785 he fathered a daughter by Betty Paton, and in 1786 had twins by Jean Armour. His fornications and his thoughts about the Kirk, made public, opened him to church censure, which he bore but little accepted. It was almost as though the floodgates had burst: his poetic output between 1784 and 1786 includes many of those works on which his reputation stands--epistles, satires, manners-painting, and songs--many of which he circulated in the manner of the times: in manuscript or by reading aloud. Many works of this period, judiciously chosen to appeal to a wider audience, appeared in the first formal publication of his work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, printed in Kilmarnock in 1786 and paid for by subscriptions.
The Kilmarnock edition might be seen as the result of two years or so of riotous living: much conviviality, much socializing with women in an era before birth control, much thinking about humanity without the "correcting" restraint of the paterfamilias, much poetry and song ostensibly about the immediate environment but encapsulating aspects of the human condition. All of this was certainly more interesting than the agricultural round, which offered a physical constraint to match the moral and mental constraint of religion. Both forms of constraint impeded the delight in life that many of Burns's finest works exhibit. Furthermore, he was in serious trouble with the Armour family, who destroyed a written and acceptable, if a bit unorthodox, marriage contract. He resolved to get out of town quickly and to leave behind something to prove his worth. He seems to have made plans to immigrate to the West Indies, and he brought to fruition his plan to publish some of his already well-received works. One of the 612 copies reached Edinburgh and was perceived to have merit. Informed of this casual endorsement, Burns abandoned his plans for immigration--if they had ever been serious--and left instead for Edinburgh.
The Kilmarnock edition shows Burns's penchant for self-presentation and his ability to choose variable poses to fit the expectations of the intended receiver. Burns presents himself as an untutored rhymer, who wrote to counteract life's woes; he feigns anxiety over the reception of his poems; he pays tribute to the genius of the Scots poets Ramsay and Fergusson; and he requests the reader's indulgence. In large measure, the material belies the tentativeness of the preface, revealing a poet aware of his literary tradition, capable of building on it, and deft in using a variety of voices--from "couthie" and colloquial, through sentimental and tender, to satiric and pointed. But the book also contains evidences of Burns as local poet, turning life to verse in slight, spur-of-the-moment pieces, occasional rhymes made on local personages, often to the gratification of their enemies. The Kilmarnock edition, however, is more revealing for its illustration of his place in a literary tradition: "The Cotter's Saturday Night," for example, echoes Fergusson's "The Farmer's Ingle" (1773); "The Holy Fair" is part of a long tradition of peasant brawls, drawing on a verse form, the Chrystis Kirk stanza, known by the name of a representative poem attributed to James I: "Chrystis Kirk of the Grene." Many of Burns's poems and verse epistles employ the six-line stanza, derived from the medieval tail-rhyme stanza which was used in Scotland by Sir David Lindsay in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (1602) but was probably seen by Burns in James Watson's Choice Collection (1706-1711) in works by Hamilton of Gilbertfield and Robert Sempill of Beltrees; Sempill's "The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson" gave the form its accepted name, Standard Habbie. Quotations from and allusions to English literary figures and their works appear throughout his work: Thomas Gray in "The Cotter's Saturday Night," Alexander Pope in "Holy Willie's Prayer," John Milton in "Address to the Deil."
Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (an undistinguished title used often before and after as a title of local poets' effusions) was a success. With all its obvious contradictions--untutored but clearly lettered; peasant but perspicacious; conscious national pride ("The Vision," "Scotch Drink") together with multiple references to other literatures--the Kilmarnock edition set the stage for Burns's success in Edinburgh and anticipated his conscious involvement in the cultural nationalistic movement. Such works as "Address to the Deil" anticipate this later concern:
O Thou, whatever title suit theee!
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie,
Wha in you cavern grim an' sooty
Clos'd under hatches,
Spairges about the brunstane cootie,
To scaud poor wretches!
Hear me, auld Hangie, for a wee,
An' let poor, damned bodies bee;
I'm sure sma' pleasure it can gie,
Ev'n to a deil,
To skelp an' scaud poor dogs like me,
An' hear us squeel!
These two stanzas provide evidence of the implicit tension between established religion and traditional culture rampant in Burns's early work. Burns takes his epigraph from Milton--
O Prince, O chief of many throned pow'rs,
That led th' embattl'd Seraphim to war--
conjuring up biblical ideas of Satan as fallen angel, hell as a place of fire and damnation, the devil as punisher of evil. But Burns's deil, familiarly addressed, is an almost comic, ever-present figure, tempting humanity but escapable. Burns allies him with traditional forces--spunkies, waterkelpies--and gives old Clootie no more force or power. Traditional notions of the devil are much less restraining than the formal religious concepts. By juxtaposing Satan and Auld Nickie, Burns conjures up metaphorically the two dominant cultural forces--one for constraint and the other for freedom. Here as elsewhere in Burns's work, freedom reigns.
Burns's affection for traditional culture is amply illustrated. In a well-known autobiographical letter to Dr. John Moore (2 August 1787) he pays tribute to its early influence when he says, "In my infant and boyish days too, I owed much to an old Maid of my Mother's, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition.--She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the county of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.--This cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy...."
Burns's first and last works were songs, reflecting his deep connection with oral ballad and song. The world of custom and belief is most particularly described in "Halloween," an ethnographic poem with footnotes elucidating rural customs. Many forms of prognostication are possible on this evening when this world and the other world or worlds hold converse, a time when unusual things are deemed possible--especially foretelling one's future mate and status. Burns's notes and prefatory material have often been used as evidence of his distance from and perhaps disdain for such practices. Yet the poem itself is peopled with a sympathetic cast of youths, chaperoned by an old woman, joined together for fun and fellowship. The youthful players try several prognosticatory rites in attempting to anticipate their future love relationships. In one stanza Burns alludes to a particular practice--"pou their stalks o' corn"--and explains in his note that "they go to the barn-yard, and pull each, at three several times, a stalk of Oats. If the third stalk wants the top-pickle, that is, the grain at the top of the stalk, the party in question will come to the marriage-bed any thing but a Maid." Burns concludes the stanza by saying that one Nelly almost lost her top-pickle that very night. Some of the activities in what is essentially a preliminary courtship ritual are frightening, requiring collective daring. Burns describes the antics, anticipation, and anxieties of the participants as they enjoy the communal event, which is concluded with food and drink:
Wi' merry sangs, an' friendly cracks,
I wat they did na weary;
And unco tales, an' funnie jokes,
Their sports were cheap an' cheary:
Till buttr'd So'ns, wi' fragrant lunt,
Set a' their gabs a steerin;
Syne, wi' a social glass o' strunt,
They parted aff careerin
Fu' blythe that night.
"The Cotter's Saturday Night" is on one level a microcosmic description of the agricultural, social, and religious practices of the farm worker--albeit an idealized vision that reiterates Burns's absolute affection for traditional aspects of life, a fictive version of his own experience. The poem is a celebration of the family and of the lives of simple folk, sanitized of hardship, crop failure, sickness, and death. Burns achieves this vision by focusing on a moment of domestic repose of a family reunited in love and affection. The Master and Mistress are the architects of the family circle; Jenny and "a neebor lad" seem destined to provide continuity. The gathering concludes with family worship: songs are sung and Scripture is read, including biblical accounts of human failings by way of warning. The domestic celebration of religion within the context of traditional life is noble and good.
From Scenes like these, old SCOTIA'S grandeur springs,
That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad:
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,
'An honest man's the noble work of GOD.'
This poem was lauded largely because of its linguistic accessibility, as a pastoral expression of nationalism, a symbolic representation of the "soul of Scotland." Auguste Angellier offers critical affirmation: "Never has the existence of the poor been invested with so much dignity." The lowly farm worker is depicted as the ideal Scot. The cotter's good life was already an anachronism, so Burns's depiction in this early poem is antiquarian, backward-looking, and imbued with cultural nationalism--perspectives which became intensified and focused in his later work. But by 1784-1785 his work was already engaged in dialogue with larger cultural issues. The linguistic attributes of the poem become part of this conversation as Burns modulates from Scots into Scots English to English, poetically reflecting the dichotomy of feeling and thinking. The stability of life as described in this poem is a wonderful accommodation of traditional culture and religion; celebration of belief in God follows naturally from sharing a way of life. But the religion that is here applauded is domestic and familial. Institutional religion Burns saw as something quite other.
Institutional religion at its worst is excessively hierarchical, constraining, and above all unjust, damning some and saving others. As a child Burns was steeped in the doctrine of predestination and effectual calling, which asserts that some people are "elected" by God to be saved without any consideration of life and works; the unchosen are damned no matter what they do. Carried to an extreme, the doctrine would permit an individual who felt assured of election to do all manner of evil, a scenario developed in Burns's "Holy Willie's Prayer." Burns could not accept the orthodox position of the so-called Auld Lichts; he believed in the power of good works to determine salvation. His corner of Scotland was a bastion of conservative religious position and practice: the Kirk session served as a moral watchdog, summoning congregants who strayed from the "straight and narrow" and handing out censure and punishment.
Thus religion was a cultural force with which to contend. Burns participated in the debate through poetry, circulating his material orally and in manuscript. Chief among his works in this vein is the satire "Holy Willie's Prayer." Prompted by the defeat of the Auld Licht censure of his friend Hamilton for failure to participate in public worship, the poem, shaped like a prayer, is put into the mouth of the Auld Licht adherent Holy Willie. It begins with an effective invocation which articulates Willie's doctrinal stance on predestination in Standard Habbie:
O Thou that in the heavens does dwell!
Wha, as it pleases best thysel,
Sends ane to heaven an ten to h-ll,
A' for thy glory!
And no for ony gude or ill
They've done before thee.
The poem continues with Willie's thanks for his own "elected" status and reaches its highest moments in Willie's confession that "At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust." Burns has Willie condemn himself by describing moments of fornication and justifying them as temptations visited on him by God. The concluding stanzas recount Willie's opinion of Hamilton--"He drinks, and swears, and plays at cartes"--and his chagrin that Minister Auld was defeated. The poem ends with the requisite petition, calling for divine vengeance on those who disagree with him and asking blessings for himself and his like. Burns condemns both the doctrine and the practice of institutional religion.
The tensions between religion and traditional culture are particularly obvious in "The Holy Fair." Burns's depiction of an open-air communion gathering, with multiple sermons and exhortations, includes an important subtext on the sociability of food, drink, chat, and perhaps love--attractions which will lead to behavior decried in sermons that very day. Again religious constraint and traditional license meet, with freedom clearly preferable:
How monie hearts this day converts,
O' Sinners and o' Lasses!
Their hearts o' stane, gin night are gane
As saft as ony flesh is.
There's some are fou o' love divine;
There's some are fou o' brandy;
An' monie jobs that day begin,
May end in Houghmagandie
Some ither day.
"The Jolly Beggars; or, Love and Liberty: A Cantata" goes even further toward affirming freedom through traditional culture. Probably written in 1785 but not published until after Burns's death, this work combines poetry and song to describe a joyful gathering of society's rejects: the maimed and physically deformed, prostitutes, and thieves. The work alternates life histories with narrative passages describing the convivial interaction of the social outcasts. Despite their low status, the accounts they give of their lives reveal an unrivaled ebullience and joy. The texts are wedded to traditional and popular tunes. The choice of tunes is not random but underlines the characteristics and experiences described in the words: thus the tinker describes his occupation to the woman he has seduced away from a fiddler to the tune "Clout the Caudron," whose traditional text describes an itinerant fixer of pots and pans, that is, a seducer of women. The assembled company exhibits acceptance of their lots in life, an acceptance made possible because their positions are shared by all present and by the power of drink to soften hardships. Stripped of all the components of human decency, lacking religious or material riches, the beggars are jolly through drink and fellowship, rich in song and story--traditional pastimes. The cantata rushes to a riotous conclusion in which those assembled sing a rousing countercultural chorus that would certainly have received Holy Willie's harshest censure:
A fig for those by LAW protected,
LIBERTY's a glorious feast!
COURTS for Cowards were erected,
CHURCHES built to please the Priest.
"The Jolly Beggars" implicitly speaks to the economic situation of the time: more and more people were made jobless and homeless in the rush for "improvement," and the older pattern of taking care of the parish poor had broken down because of greater mobility and greater numbers of needy. Burns offers no solution, but he does illustrate the beggars' humanity and, above all, their capacity for Life with a capital L--a mode of behavior that is convivial; unites people in story, song, and drink; and exudes delight and joy: traditional culture wins again.
Burns worked out in poetry some of his responses to his own culture by showing opposing views of how life should be lived. Descriptions of his own experiences stimulated musings on constraint and freedom. Critical tradition says that John Richmond and Burns observed the beggars in Poosie Nansie's "The Holy Fair" may be based on the Mauchline Annual Communion, which was held on the second Sunday of August in 1785; the gathering of the cotter's family may not describe a specific event but certainly depicts a generalized and typical picture. Thus Burns's own experiences became the base from which he responded to and considered larger cultural and human issues.
The Kilmarnock edition changed Burns's life: it sprang him away for a year and a half from the grind of agricultural routine, and it made him a public figure. Burns arrived in the capital city in the heyday of cultural nationalism, and his own person and works were hailed as evidences of a Scottish culture: the Scotsman as a peasant, close to the soil, possessing the "soul" of nature; the works as products of that peasant, in Scots, containing echoes of earlier written and oral Scottish literature.
Burns went to Edinburgh to arrange for a new edition of his poems and was immediately taken up by the literati and proclaimed a remarkable Scot. He procured the support of the Caledonian Hunt as sponsors of the Edinburgh edition and set to work with the publisher William Creech to arrange a slightly altered and expanded edition. He was wined and dined by the taste-setters, almost without exception persons from a different class and background from his. He was the "hit" of the season, and he knew full well what was going on: he intensified aspects of his rural persona to conform to expectations. He represented the creativity of the peasant Scot and was for a season "Exhibit A" for a distinct Scottish heritage.
Burns used this time for a variety of experiments, trying on several roles. He entered into what seems to have been a platonic dalliance with a woman of some social standing, Agnes McLehose, who was herself in an ambiguous social situation--her husband having been in Jamaica for some time. The relationship, whatever its true nature, stimulated a correspondence, in which Burns and Mrs. McLehose styled themselves Sylvander and Clarinda and wrote predictably elevated, formulaic, and seemingly insincere letters. Burns lacks conviction in this role; but he met more congenial persons: boon companions, males whom he joined in back-street howffs for lively talk, song, and bawdry.
If the Caledonian Hunt represented the late-eighteenth-century crème de la crème, the Crochallan Fencibles, one of the literary and convivial clubs of the day in which members took on assumed names and personae, represented the middle ranks of society where Burns felt more at home. In the egalitarian clubs and howffs Burns met more sympathetic individuals, among them James Johnson, an engraver in the initial stages of a project to print all the tunes of Scotland. That meeting shifted Burns's focus to song, which became his principal creative form for the rest of his life.
The Edinburgh period provided an interlude of potentiality and experimentation. Burns made several trips to the Borders and Highlands, often being received as a notable and renowned personage. Within a year and a half Burns moved from being a local poet to one with a national reputation and was well on his way to being the national poet, even though much of his writing during this period continued an earlier versifying strain of extemporaneous, occasional poetry. But the Edinburgh period set the ground-work for his subsequent creativity, stimulated his revealing correspondence, and provided him with a way of becoming an advocate for Scotland as anonymous bard.
If Burns were received in Edinburgh as a typical Scot and a producer of genuine Scottish products, that cultural nationalism in turn channeled his love of his country--already expressed in several poems in the Kilmarnock edition--into his songs. Burns's support for Johnson's project is infectious; in a letter to a friend, James Candlish, he wrote in November 1787: "I am engaged in assisting an honest Scots Enthusiast, a friend of mine, who is an Engraver, and has taken it into his head to publish a collection of all our songs set to music, of which the words and music are done by Scotsmen.--This, you will easily guess, is an undertaking exactly to my taste.--I have collected, begg'd, borrow'd and stolen all the songs I could meet with.--Pompey's Ghost, words and music, I beg from you immediately...." Here was a chance to do what he had been doing all his life--wedding text and tune--but for Scotland. Thus Burns became a conscious participant in the antiquarian and cultural movement to gather and preserve evidences of Scottish identity before they were obliterated in the cultural drift toward English language and culture. Burns's clear preference for traditional culture, and particularly for the freedom it represented, shifted intensity and direction because of the Edinburgh experience. He narrowed his focus from all of traditional culture to one facet--song. Balladry and song were safe artifacts that could be captured on paper and sanitized for polite edification. This approach to traditional culture was distanced and conscious, while his earlier depiction of the larger whole of traditional culture had been immediate, intimate, and largely unconscious. Thus Edinburgh changed his artistic stance, making him more clearly aware of choices and directions as well as a conscious antiquarian.
In all, Burns had a hand in some 330 songs for Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803), a six-volume work, and for George Thomson's five-volume A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (1793-1818). As a nationalistic work, The Scots Musical Museum was designed to reflect Scottish popular taste; like similar publications, it included traditional songs--texts and tunes--as well as songs and tunes by specific authors and composers. Burns developed a coded system of letters for identifying contributors, suggesting to all but the cognoscenti that the songs were traditional. It is often difficult to separate Burns's work from genuinely traditional texts; he may, for example, have edited and polished the old Scots ballad "Tam Lin," which tells of a man restored from fairyland to his human lover. Many collected texts received a helping hand--fragments were filled out, refrains and phrases were amalgamated to make a whole--and original songs in the manner of tradition were created anew. Burns's song output was enormous and uneven, and he knew it: "Here, once for all, let me apologies for many silly compositions of mine in this work. Many beautiful airs wanted words." Yet many of the songs are succinct masterpieces on love, on the brotherhood of man, and on the dignity of the common man--subjects which link Burns with oral and popular tradition on the one hand and on the other with the societal changes that were intensifying distinctions between people.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Burns's songs is their singability, the perspicacity with which words are joined to tune. "My Love she's but a lassie yet" provides a superb example: a sprightly tune holds together four loosely connected stanzas about a woman, courtship, drink, and sexual dalliance to create a whole much greater than the sum of the parts. The Song begins:
My love she's but a lassie yet,
My love she's but a lassie yet;
We'll let her stand a year or twa,
She'll no be half sae saucy yet.
It concludes, enigmatically:
We're a' dry wi' drinking o't,
We're a' dry wi' drinking o't:
The minister kisst the fidler's wife,
He could na preach for thinkin o't.--
The songs are at their best when sung, but there may be delight in text alone, for brilliant stanzas appear most unexpectedly. The chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" encapsulates the pleasure of reunion, of shared memory:
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
The vignette of a couple aging together--"We clamb the hill the gither" in "John Anderson My Jo" suggests praise of continuity and shared lives. In a similar manner "A Red, Red Rose" depicts a love that is both fresh and lasting: "O my Luve's like a red, red rose, / That's newly sprung in June."
Burns's comment in a letter to Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop in 1790--"Old Scots Songs are, you know, a favorite study and pursuit of mine"--accurately describes his absorption with song after Edinburgh. He not only collected, edited, and wrote songs but studied them, perusing the extant collections, commenting on provenance, gathering explanatory material, and speculating on the distinct qualities of Scottish song: "There is a certain something in the old Scots songs, a wild happiness of thought and expression" and of Scottish music: "let our National Music preserve its native features.--They are, I own, frequently wild, & unreduceable to the more modern rules; but on that very eccentricity, perhaps, depends a great part of their effect." This nationalism did not stop with song but pervaded all Burns's work after Edinburgh. Certainly the most critically acclaimed product of this period is a work written for Francis Grose's Antiquities of Scotland (1789-1791). Burns suggested Alloway Kirk as a subject for the work and wrote "Tam o' Shanter" to assure its inclusion.
"Tam o' Shanter" is the culmination of Burns's delight in traditional culture and his selective elevation of parts of that culture in his antiquarian and nationalistic pursuit of Scottish distinctness. The poem retells a legend about a man who comes upon a witches' Sabbath and unwisely comments on it, alerting the participants to his presence and necessitating their revenge. Burns provides a frame for the legend, localizes it at Alloway Kirk, and peoples it with plausible characters--in particular, the feckless Tam, who takes every opportunity to imbibe with his buddies and avoid going home to wife and domestic responsibilities. Tam stops at a tavern for a drink and sociability and gets caught up in the flow of song, story, and laughter; the raging storm outside makes the conviviality inside the tavern doubly precious. But it is late and Tam must go home and "face the music," having yet again gotten drunk, no doubt having used money intended for less selfish and more basic purposes. On his way home Tam experiences the events which are central to the legend; the initial convivial scene has provided the context in which such legends might be told. After passing spots enshrined in other legends, he comes upon the witches' Sabbath revels at the ruins of Alloway Kirk, with the familiar and not quite malevolent devil, styled "auld Nick," in dog form playing bagpipe accompaniment to the witches' dance. Burns incorporates skeptical interpolations into the narrative--perhaps Tam is only drunk and "seeing things"--which replicate in poetic form aspects of an oral telling of legends. And the concluding occurrence of Tam's escapade, the loss of his horse's tail to the foremost witch's grasp, demands a response from the reader in much the same way a legend told in conversation elicits an immediate response from the listener. Burns, then, has not only used a legend and provided a setting in which legends might be told but has replicated poetically aspects of a verbal recounting of a legend. And he has used a traditional form to celebrate Scotland's cultural past. "Tam o' Shanter" may be seen as Burns's most mature and complex celebration of Scottish cultural artifacts.
If there were a shift of emphasis and attitude toward traditional culture as a result of the Edinburgh experience, there was also continuity. Early and late Burns was a rhymer, a versifier, a local poet using traditional forms and themes in occasional and sometimes extemporaneous productions. These works are seldom noteworthy and are sometimes biting and satiric. He called them "little trifles" and frequently wrote them to "pay a debt." These pieces were not thought of as equal to his more deliberate endeavors; they were play, increasingly expected of him as a poet. He probably would have disavowed many now attributed to him, particularly some of the mean-spirited epigrams. Several occasional pieces, however, deserve a closer look for their ability to raise the commonplace to altogether different heights.
In 1786 Burns wrote "To a Haggis," a paean to the Scottish pudding of seasoned heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, and oatmeal and boiled in an animal's stomach:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftan o' the Puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.