Robert Burns (January 25, 1759 - July 21, 1796)
Born: 25th January, 1759
Died: 21st July, 1796
Nationality: Scottish
Profession/Occupation: Poet
Region: Alloway, Scotland, Dumfries
Notable works: "A Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs for the Voice", "The Scots Musical Museum", "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect", "The Death and Dying Words of Poor Maillie", "Tam o'Shanter"

Robert Burns Facts

Biography

Robert Burns, (born January 25, 1759, Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland--died July 21, 1796, Dumfries, Dumfriesshire), national poet of Scotland, who wrote lyrics and songs in Scots and in English. He was also famous for his amours and his rebellion against orthodox religion and morality.

Life

Burns's father had come to Ayrshire from Kincardineshire in an endeavour to improve his fortunes, but, though he worked immensely hard first on the farm of Mount Oliphant, which he leased in 1766, and then on that of Lochlea, which he took in 1777, ill luck dogged him, and he died in 1784, worn out and bankrupt. It was watching his father being thus beaten down that helped to make Robert both a rebel against the social order of his day and a bitter satirist of all forms of religious and political thought that condoned or perpetuated inhumanity. He received some formal schooling from a teacher as well as sporadically from other sources. He acquired a superficial reading knowledge of French and a bare smattering of Latin, and he read most of the important 18th-century English writers as well as Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden. His knowledge of Scottish literature was confined in his childhood to orally transmitted folk songs and folk tales together with a modernization of the late 15th-century poem "Wallace." His religion throughout his adult life seems to have been a humanitarian Deism.

Proud, restless, and full of a nameless ambition, the young Burns did his share of hard work on the farm. His father's death made him tenant of the farm of Mossgiel to which the family moved and freed him to seek male and female companionship where he would. He took sides against the dominant extreme Calvinist wing of the church in Ayrshire and championed a local gentleman, Gavin Hamilton, who had got into trouble with the kirk session (a church court) for Sabbath breaking. He had an affair with a servant girl at the farm, Elizabeth Paton, who in 1785 bore his first child, and on the child's birth he welcomed it with a lively poem.

Development as a poet

Burns developed rapidly throughout 1784 and 1785 as an "occasional" poet who more and more turned to verse to express his emotions of love, friendship, or amusement or his ironical contemplation of the social scene. But these were not spontaneous effusions by an almost illiterate peasant. Burns was a conscious craftsman; his entries in the commonplace book that he had begun in 1783 reveal that from the beginning he was interested in the technical problems of versification.

Though he wrote poetry for his own amusement and that of his friends, Burns remained restless and dissatisfied. He won the reputation of being a dangerous rebel against orthodox religion, and, when in 1786 he fell in love with Jean Armour, her father refused to allow her to marry Burns even though a child was on the way and under Scots law mutual consent followed by consummation constituted a legal marriage. Jean was persuaded by her father to go back on her promise. Robert, hurt and enraged, took up with another woman, Mary Campbell, who died soon after. On September 3 Jean bore him twins out of wedlock.

Meanwhile, the farm was not prospering, and Burns, harassed by insoluble problems, thought of emigrating. But he first wanted to show his country what he could do. In the midst of his troubles he went ahead with his plans for publishing a volume of his poems at the nearby town of Kilmarnock. It was entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect and appeared on July 31, 1786. Its success was immediate and overwhelming. Simple country folk and sophisticated Edinburgh critics alike hailed it, and the upshot was that Burns set out for Edinburgh on November 27, 1786, to be lionized, patronized, and showered with well-meant but dangerous advice.

The Kilmarnock volume was a remarkable mixture. It included a handful of first-rate Scots poems: "The Twa Dogs," "Scotch Drink," "The Holy Fair," "An Address to the Deil," "The Death and Dying Words of Poor Maillie," "To a Mouse," "To a Louse," and some others, including a number of verse letters addressed to various friends. There were also a few Scots poems in which he was unable to sustain his inspiration or that are spoiled by a confused purpose. In addition, there were six gloomy and histrionic poems in English, four songs, of which only one, "It Was Upon a Lammas Night," showed promise of his future greatness as a song writer, and what to contemporary reviewers seemed the stars of the volume, "The Cotter's Saturday Night" and "To a Mountain Daisy."

Burns selected his Kilmarnock poems with care: he was anxious to impress a genteel Edinburgh audience. In his preface he played up to contemporary sentimental views about the "natural man" and the "noble peasant," exaggerated his lack of education, pretended to a lack of natural resources, and in general acted a part. The trouble was that he was only half acting. He was uncertain enough about the genteel tradition to accept much of it at its face value, and though, to his ultimate glory, he kept returning to what his own instincts told him was the true path for him to follow, far too many of his poems are marred by a naive and sentimental moralizing.

After Edinburgh

Edinburgh unsettled Burns, and, after a number of amorous and other adventures there and several trips to other parts of Scotland, he settled in the summer of 1788 at a farm in Ellisland, Dumfriesshire. At Edinburgh, too, he arranged for a new and enlarged edition (1787) of his Poems, but little of significance was added to the Kilmarnock selection. He found farming at Ellisland difficult, though he was helped by Jean Armour, with whom he had been reconciled and whom he finally married in 1788.

In Edinburgh Burns had met James Johnson, a keen collector of Scottish songs who was bringing out a series of volumes of songs with the music and who enlisted Burns's help in finding, editing, improving, and rewriting items. Burns was enthusiastic and soon became virtual editor of Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum. Later he became involved with a similar project for George Thomson, but Thomson was a more consciously genteel person than Johnson, and Burns had to fight with him to prevent him from "refining" words and music and so ruining their character. Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803) and the first five volumes of Thomson's A Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs for the Voice (1793-1818) contain the bulk of Burns's songs. Burns spent the latter part of his life in assiduously collecting and writing songs to provide words for traditional Scottish airs. He regarded his work as service to Scotland and quixotically refused payment. The only poem he wrote after his Edinburgh visit that showed a hitherto unsuspected side of his poetic genius was "Tam o' Shanter" (1791), a spirited narrative poem in brilliantly handled eight-syllable couplets based on a folk legend.

Meanwhile, Burns corresponded with and visited on terms of equality a great variety of literary and other people who were considerably "above" him socially. He was an admirable letter writer and a brilliant talker, and he could hold his own in any company. At the same time, he was still a struggling tenant farmer, and the attempt to keep himself going in two different social and intellectual capacities was wearing him down. After trying for a long time, he finally obtained a post in the excise service in 1789 and moved to Dumfries in 1791, where he lived until his death. His life at Dumfries was active. He wrote numerous "occasional" poems and did an immense amount of work for the two song collections, in addition to carrying out his duties as exciseman. The outbreak of the French Revolution excited him, and some indiscreet outbursts nearly lost him his job, but his reputation as a good exciseman and a politic but humiliating recantation saved him.

Legacy

Burns was a man of great intellectual energy and force of character who, in a class-ridden society, never found an environment in which he could fully exercise his personality. It may be argued that Scottish culture in his day was incapable of providing an intellectual background that could replace the Calvinism that Burns rejected, or that Burns's talent was squandered on an Edinburgh literati that, according to English critics, were second-raters. Yet he lived during the cultural and intellectual tumult known as the Scottish Enlightenment, and the problem was ultimately more than one of personalities. The only substitute for the rejected Calvinism seemed to be, for Burns, a sentimental Deism, a facile belief in the good heart as all, and this was arguably not a creed rich or complex enough to nourish great poetry. That Burns in spite of this produced so much fine poetry shows the strength of his unique genius, and that he has become the Scottish national poet is a tribute to his hold on the popular imagination.

Burns perhaps exhibited his greatest poetic powers in his satires. There is also a remarkable craftsmanship in his verse letters, which display a most adroit counterpointing of the colloquial and the formal. But it is by his songs that Burns is best known, and it is his songs that have carried his reputation round the world.

Burns wrote all his songs to known tunes, sometimes writing several sets of words to the same air in an endeavour to find the most apt poem for a given melody. Many songs which, it is clear from a variety of evidence, must have been substantially written by Burns he never claimed as his. He never claimed "Auld Lang Syne," for example, which he described simply as an old fragment he had discovered, but the song we have is almost certainly his, though the chorus and probably the first stanza are old. (Burns wrote it for a simple and moving old air that is not the tune to which it is now sung, as Thomson set it to another tune.) The full extent of Burns's work on Scottish song will probably never be known.

It is positively miraculous that Burns was able to enter into the spirit of older folk song and re-create, out of an old chorus, such songs as "I'm O'er Young to Marry Yet," "Green Grow the Rashes, O," and a host of others. It is this uncanny ability to speak with the great anonymous voice of the Scottish people that explains the special feeling that Burns arouses, feelings that manifest themselves in the "Burns cult."

Top 25 Robert Burns quotes

Suspense is worse than disappointment.
Disappointment
Suspense
Than
Worse
Affliction's sons are brothers in distress; A brother to relieve, how exquisite the bliss!
Affliction
Bliss
Brother
Brothers
Distress
Exquisite
How
Relieve
Sons
There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.
Sure
Sure thing
Thing
Uncertainty
His locked, lettered, braw brass collar, Shewed him the gentleman and scholar.
Brass
Collar
Gentleman
Him
His
Locked
Scholar
Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!
Countless
Inhumanity
Makes
Man
Mourn
Thousands
The snowdrop and primrose our woodlands adorn, and violets bathe in the wet o' the morn.
Adorn
Our
Violets
Wet
Dare to be honest and fear no labor.
Dare
Fear
Honest
Labor
To be honest
Firmness in enduring and exertion is a character I always wish to possess. I have always despised the whining yelp of complaint and cowardly resolve.
Always
Character
Complaint
Cowardly
Despised
Enduring
Exertion
Firmness
Possess
Resolve
Whining
Wish
The wide world is all before us - but a world without a friend.
Before
Friend
Us
Wide
Wide world
Without
World
And there begins a lang digression about the lords o' the creation.
About
Begins
Creation
Lords
Critics! Those cut-throat bandits in the paths of fame.
Critics
Fame
Paths
Those
Suspicion is a heavy armor and with its weight it impedes more than it protects.
Armor
Heavy
More
Protects
Suspicion
Than
Weight
I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence.
Defensive
Existence
Favourite
Mind
Offensive
Pick
Quotations
Ready
Store
Struggle
Them
Turbulent
Let them cant about decorum, Who have characters to lose!
About
Cant
Characters
Decorum
Lose
Them
Who
I have often thought that if a well-grounded affection be not really a part of virtue, it is something extremely akin to it.
Affection
Extremely
Often
Part
Really
Something
Thought
Virtue
It is natural for a young fellow to like the acquaintance of females and customary for him to keep them company when occasion serves. Some one of them is more agreeable to him than the rest; there is something, he knows not what, pleases him, he knows not how, in her company. This I take to be what is called love with the greatest part of us.
Acquaintance
Agreeable
Company
Fellow
Females
Greatest
He
Her
Him
How
Keep
Knows
Like
Love
There is something so mean and unmanly in the arts of dissimulation and falsehood that I am surprised they can be used by anyone in so noble, so generous a passion as virtuous love.
Am
Anyone
Arts
Falsehood
Generous
I am
Love
Mean
Noble
Passion
Something
Surprised
Used
Virtuous
I foresee that poverty and obscurity probably await me, and I am in some measure prepared and daily preparing to meet them.
Am
Daily
Foresee
I am
Me
Measure
Meet
Obscurity
Poverty
Prepared
Preparing
Some
Them
The joy of my heart is to 'study men, their manners, and their ways,' and for this darling object I cheerfully sacrifice every other consideration.
Cheerfully
Consideration
Darling
Every
Heart
Joy
Manners
Men
Object
Other
Sacrifice
Study
Ways
O thou great, unknown Power! Thou Almighty God, who hast lighted up reason in my breast and blessed me with immortality! I have frequently wandered from that order and regularity necessary for the perfection of thy works, yet thou hast never left me nor forsaken me.
Almighty
Almighty god
Blessed
Forsaken
Frequently
God
Great
Immortality
Left
Lighted
Me
Necessary
Never
Nor
There is scarcely anything to which I am so feelingly alive as the honour and welfare of my country, and, as a poet, I have no higher enjoyment than singing her sons and daughters.
Alive
Am
Anything
Country
Daughters
Enjoyment
Her
Higher
Honour
I am
Poet
Scarcely
Singing
Sons
I am very willing to admit that I have some poetical abilities, and as few - if any - writers, either moral or political, are intimately acquainted with the classes of mankind among whom I have chiefly mingled, I may have seen men and manners in a different phasis from what is common, which may assist originality of thought.
Ability
Acquainted
Admit
Am
Among
Any
Assist
Chiefly
Classes
Common
Different
Either
Few
I am
There is nothing in the whole frame of man which seems to me so unaccountable as that thing called conscience.
Conscience
Frame
Man
Me
Nothing
Seems
Thing
Which
Whole
The appellation of a Scottish Bard is by far my highest pride; to continue to deserve it is my most exalted ambition.
Ambition
Continue
Deserve
Exalted
Far
Highest
Most
Pride
Scottish
In my conscience, I believe that my heart has been so oft on fire that it is absolutely vitrified.
Absolutely
Been
Believe
Conscience
Fire
Has-been
Heart
I believe
I believe that
Oft

Robert Burns essays

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