Burns, Robert

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Burns, Robert (1759-1796). Scottish Poet.

Robert Burns was hailed as a natural poetic genius by his contemporaries. Born of tenant farmers in southwest Scotland, Burns received little formal education, and his use of traditional Scottish folklore and dialect in his writing, along with the energetic, often sexual, qualities of poetry, marked a shift from English neoclassicism popular in the poetry of his day. His poetic work, combined in later years with his work in preserving and editing Scottish folk songs, has cemented his reputation as both the national poet of Scotland, and the most influential of the pre-Romantic poets in both England and Scotland.

William Burnes [sic], Robert’s father, encouraged education among his children, and though educational opportunities were limited for tenant farmers, Burns became a well-read, if primarily self-taught man. Writing poetry since he was fifteen, his poetic output increased dramatically in 1784, upon the death of his father. Burns became the head of the family at this time, and while seemingly bred for a life of toil, he sought means of abandoning the arduous and often unsuccessful farming vocation. In 1786, his newly published volume, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, became an immediate success. Also called The Kilmarnock Poems, the collection led to his lionization as a poet. The English public understood Burns as a writer of poetry derived from pure, natural instinct, independent of cultural or educational traditions, and Burns himself did nothing to discourage this perception. In the years to follow, his poetry would have a great deal of influence in England, in particular over the young poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, who would become central figures of the English Romantic movement.

An outspoken political and religious radical, Burns visited England shortly after the publication of his early work. There, he was largely celebrated for both his poetry and his lively conversational gifts. Eventually, however, his fierce, opinionated manner, combined with his liberal attitudes and, perhaps more notably, his growing reputation as a conspicuous sexual libertine (Burns fathered several illegitimate children in his lifetime), diminished his reputation. In 1788, he settled down in Scotland with his wife, former mistress Jean Armour, to work as a tax collector and farmer. Meanwhile, he worked on a project begun in 1787 as a co-editor, with friend James Johnson, for an anthology of folk songs, The Scots Musical Museum, and later a similar work, the Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. These volumes, anthologizing and preserving Scottish folk songs and poetry, occupied him until the end of his life in 1796.

Burns’ work as a scholar, editor, and preserver of Scottish literature is itself noteworthy. However, both his earlier works and his later poems, such as Tam o’ Shanter, are still held in high critical esteem. Much of his poetry had a direct influence on the English Romantic movement, and even today Burns’ numerous songs, among them the perennial Auld Lang Syne, remain popular and familiar works of the period.

Further Reading:

James Mackay, Burns: A Biography, 1992.

Steven Zani

Lamar University