- Robert Burns - The Ploughman Poet [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
Robert Burns
by Long, William J.

Burns is everywhere acclaimed the poet of Scotland, and for two good reasons: because he reflects better than any other the emotions of the Scottish people, and because his book is a summary of the best verse of his native land. Practically all his songs, such as "Bonnie Boon" and "Auld Lang Syne," are late echoes of much older verses; his more ambitious poems borrow their ideas, their satire or sentiment, their form even, from Ferguson, Allan Ramsay and other poets, all of whom aimed (as Scott aimed in "Lochinvar") to preserve the work of unnamed minstrels whose lines had been repeated in Highlands or Lowlands for two centuries. Burns may be regarded, therefore, as a treasury of all that is best in Scottish song. His genius was to take this old material, dear to the heart of the native, and give it final expression.


The life of Burns is one to discourage a biographer who does not relish the alternative of either concealing the facts or apologizing for his subject. We shall record here only a few personal matters which may help us to understand Burns's poetry.

Perhaps the most potent influence in his life was that which came from his labor in the field. He was born in a clay biggin, or cottage, in the parish of Alloway, near the little town of Ayr.

      Auld Ayr, wham neer a town surpasses
      For honest men and bonnie lasses.

His father was a poor crofter, a hard working, God fearing man of the Covenanter type, who labored unceasingly to earn a living from the soil of a rented farm. The children went barefoot in all seasons, almost from the time they could walk they were expected to labor and at thirteen Bobbie was doing a man's work at the plow or the reaping. The toil was severe, the reward, at best, was to escape dire poverty or disgraceful debt, but there was yet a nobility in the life which is finely reflected in "The Cotter's Saturday Night," a poem which ranks with Whittier's "Snow Bound" among the best that labor has ever inspired.

The Element of Nature

As a farmer's boy Burns worked in the open, in close contact with nature, and the result is evident in all his verse. Sunshine or storm, bird song or winter wind, the flowers, the stars, the dew of the morning,--open Burns where you will, and you are face to face with these elemental realities. Sometimes his reflection of nature is exquisitely tender, as in "To a Mouse" or "To a Mountain Daisy"; but for the most part he regards nature not sentimentally, like Gray, or religiously, like Wordsworth and Bryant, but in a breezy, companionable way which suggests the song of "Under the Greenwood Tree" in As You Like It.

His Education

Another influence in Burns's life came from his elementary education. There were no ancient classics studied in the school which he attended,--fortunately, perhaps, for his best work is free from the outworn classical allusions which decorate the bulk of eighteenth-century verse. In the evening he listened to tales from Scottish history, which stirred him deeply and made him live in a present world rather than in the misty region of Greek mythology. One result of this education was the downright honesty of Burns's poems. Here is no echo from a vanished world of gods and goddesses, but the voice of a man, living, working, feeling joy or sorrow in the presence of everyday nature and humanity.

For another formative influence Burns was indebted to Betty Davidson, a relative and an inmate of the household, who carried such a stock of old wives' tales as would scare any child into fits on a dark night. Hear Burns speak of her:

        "She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country
        of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies,
        brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies,
        elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantrips,
        giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery. This
        cultivated the latent seeds of poetry, but had so strong an
        effect upon my imagination that to this hour, in my
        nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in
        suspicious places."

Reflections of these grotesque superstitions appear in such poems as the "Address to the Deil" and "Tam o' Shanter." The latter is commonly named as one of the few original works of Burns, but it is probably a retelling of some old witch-tale of Betty Davidson.

Evil Elements

The evil influence in Burns's life may be only suggested. It leads first to the tavern, to roistering and dissipation, to entanglements in vulgar love affairs; then swiftly to the loss of a splendid poetic gift, to hopeless debts, to degrading poverty, to an untimely death. Burns had his chance, if ever poet had it, after the publication of his first book (the famous Kilmarnock edition of 1786) when he was called in triumph to Edinburgh. There he sold another edition of his poems for a sum that seemed fabulous to a poor crofter; whereupon he bought a farm and married his Jean Armour. He was acclaimed throughout the length and breadth of his native land, his poems were read by the wise and by the ignorant, he was the poet of Scotland, and the nation, proud of its gifted son, stood ready to honor and follow him. But the old habits were too strong, and Burns took the downhill road. To this element of dissipation we owe his occasional bitterness, railing and coarseness, which make an expurgated edition of his poems essential to one who would enjoy the reading.

There is another element, often emphasized for its alleged influence on Burns's poetry. During his lifetime the political world was shaken by the American and French revolutions, democracy was in the air, and the watchwords "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" inspired many a song besides the Marseillaise and many a document besides the Declaration of Independence. That Burns was aware of this political commotion is true, but he was not much influenced by it. He was at home only in his own Scottish field, and even there his interests were limited,--not to be compared with those of Walter Scott, for example. When the Bastille was stormed, and the world stood aghast, Burns was too much engrossed in personal matters to be greatly moved by distant affairs in France. Not to the Revolution, therefore, but to his Scottish blood do we owe the thrilling "Scots Wha Hae," one of the world's best battle songs, not to the new spirit of democracy abroad but to the old Covenanter spirit at home do we owe "A Man's a Man for a' That" with its assertion of elemental manhood.

The Songs of Burns

From such an analysis of Burns's life one may forecast his subject and his method. Living intensely in a small field, he must discover that there are just two poetic subjects of abiding interest. These are Nature and Humanity, and of these Burns must write from first-hand knowledge, simply, straightforwardly, and with sincerity. Moreover, as Burns lives in an intense way, reading himself rather than books, he must discover that the ordinary man is more swayed by strong feeling than by logical reasons. He will write, therefore, of the common emotions that lie between the extremes of laughter and tears, and his appeal will be to the heart rather than to the head of his reader.

This emotional power of Burns, his masterful touch upon human heartstrings, is the first of his poetic qualities; and he has others which fairly force themselves upon the attention. For example, many of his lyrics ("Auld Lang Syne," "Banks o' Doon," "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton," "O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast") have been repeatedly set to music; and the reason is that they were written to music, that in such poems Burns was refashioning some old material to the tune of a Scottish song. There is a singing quality in his poetry which not only makes it pleasant reading but which is apt to set the words tripping to melody. For a specific example take this stanza from "Of a' the Airts," a lyric which one can hardly read without making a tune to match it:

  I see her in the dewy flow'rs,
    I see her sweet and fair;
  I hear her in the tunefu' birds,
    I hear her charm the air:
  There's not a bonie flow'r that springs
    By fountain, shaw or green,
  There's not a bonie bird that sings,
    But minds me o' my Jean.

Sympathy is another marked characteristic of Burns, a wide, all-embracing sympathy that knows no limit save for hypocrites, at whom he pointed his keenest satire. His feeling for nature is reflected in "To a Mouse" and "To a Daisy"; his comradeship with noble men appears in "The Cotter's Saturday Night," with riotous and bibulous men in "The Jolly Beggars," with smugglers and their ilk in "The Deil's Awa' with the Exciseman," [Footnote: Burns was himself an exciseman; that is, a collector of taxes on alcoholic liquors. He wrote this song while watching a smuggler's craft, and waiting in the storm for officers to come and make an arrest.] with patriots in "Bannockburn," with men who mourn in "To Mary in Heaven," and with all lovers in a score of famous lyrics. Side by side with Burns's sympathy (for Smiles live next door to Tears) appears his keen sense of humor, a humor that is sometimes rollicking, as in "Contented wi' Little," and again too broad for decency. For the most part, however, Burns contents himself with dry, quiet sarcasm delivered with an air of great seriousness:

  Ah, gentle dames, it gars me greet
  To think how mony counsels sweet,
  How mony lengthened sage advices
  The husband frae the wife despises!

Why Burns is Read

Such qualities, appearing on almost every page of Burns's little book of poetry, show how widely he differs from the formal school of Pope and Dryden. They labor to compose poetry, while Burns gives the impression of singing, as naturally as a child sings from a full heart. Again, most eighteenth-century poets wrote for the favored few, but Burns wrote for all his neighbors. His first book was bought farmers, plowboys, milkmaids,--by every Lowlander who could scrape together three shillings to buy a treasure. Then scholars got hold of it, taking it from humble hands, and Burns was called to Edinburgh to prepare a larger edition of his songs. For a half century Scotland kept him to herself, [Footnote: Up to 1850 Burns was rarely mentioned in treatises on English literature. One reason for his late recognition was that the Lowland vocabulary employed in most of his poems was only half intelligible to the ordinary English reader] then his work went wide in the world, to be read again by plain men and women, by sailors on the sea, by soldiers round the campfire, by farmers, mechanics, tradesmen, who in their new homes in Australia or America warmed themselves at the divine fire which was kindled, long ago, in the little clay biggin at Alloway.

The Genius of Burns

If one should ask, Why this world wide welcome to Burns, the while Pope remains a mark for literary criticism? the answer is that Burns has a most extraordinary power of touching the hearts of common men. He is one of the most democratic of poets, he takes for his subject a simple experience--a family gathering at eventide, a fair, a merrymaking, a joy, a grief, the finding of a flower, the love of a lad for a lass--and with rare simplicity reflects the emotion that such an experience awakens. Seen through the poet's eyes, this simple emotion becomes radiant and lovely, a thing not of earth but of heaven. That is the genius of Burns, to ennoble human feeling, to reveal some hidden beauty in a commonplace experience. The luminous world of fine thought and fine emotion which we associate with the name of poetry he opened not to scholars alone but to all humble folk who toil and endure. As a shoemaker critic once said, "Burns confirms my former suspicion that the world was made for me as well as for Csar."


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