Life of Robert Burns, Works – Poetry, Critics

Published 21 Feb 2017

Life of Robert Burns

Robert Burns was known by the critics in his days as a literary genius, writing over 250 songs and hundreds of poems. Many critics didn’t think much of him at the time because he was a heavy drinker and a womanizer. He had fifteen children, 6 of which were out of wedlock. Besides all that he was an excellent author writing such works as “Tam O’ Shanter”, “Auld Lang Syne”, and “Comin’ thro’ the Rye”. Because of a hard youth living in poverty on a farm he died at the young age of 37. Robert Burns was a Romantic poet of the first generation but actually we can say that he did not belong to any other group. He was Scottish and his poems are full of joy. He was also a revolutionary character both in religion and politics and this is reflected in his poems. Unlike the others he used dialogues in his poems and his humor can be observed in his poems, which are full of joy.

Robert Burns was the oldest of seven siblings and was born in Alloway, Scotland on 25th January, 1759. His father was William Burns and his mother Agnes Burns. William Burns wasn’t much of farmer and was poor for a long time. They lived in poverty until 1766 when William rented a farm. The farm was a failure and they just got even worse. Robert got very little education because he spent most of his time working on the farm with his family. When he had the time he would read as much as he could. His father and one of their neighbors scraped together some money to hire a tutor for Robert and his younger brother Gilbert. The tutor taught them history, math, and literature.

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The first song Robert ever wrote was “Handsome Nell” for Nellie Kilpatrick. Nellie was a young girl that Robert had met when he went to school for a little while in a nearby town. After he wrote “Handsome Nell” he realized he had an ability to write well and tried again sometime later. The first poem that he wrote was “O Once I Loved” in 1794. After that there was no stopping his writing. In 1777 the family’s financial situation got a little better after they moved to a different farm. By this time Robert was able to read and write even better. (Ian, 398)

Burns Career

In 1781 Robert moved to Irvine to start a business but it was a colossal failure. While Robert lived in Irvine he met up with a sailor named Richard Brown who read some of Robert’s work and encouraged him to have it published. Robert agreed hoping that it may pay his way to Jamaica. The Kilmarnock Edition was a huge success and sold every copy in the first month so Burns’ decided he would stay where he was at to make his fortune. Robert was known for taking a liking to the women in his time. He tried to marry Jean Armour after she became pregnant with twins. Jeans father was outraged and refused to let them marry. Jean gave in and they parted ways. Robert was angry but soon after he became famous for his poetry and Jean’s father pushed for them to marry but Robert triumphantly refused. Soon after, they get married on February 25, 1788. Jean has the twins, one girl named Jean, the other named Robert.

Burns moves to Edinburgh to find a better job and finds that all the people there love his work and won’t give a job because they didn’t want to ruin his image as a rustic poem writer. He soon gets his next book The Edinburgh Edition published with no problem and gets more acclaim. Not long after that he becomes a tax collector. Over the next few years, Robert begins to gather his writings of Scottish songs. He starts to putting his poems to music he composed and to traditional Scottish air. He edited and contributed many songs to several volumes.

Around 1790 he finally hits financial security and starts to write his greatest poem “Tam O’ Shanter”. During this time he also writes “The Lea Ring” and “Red, Red Rose”. On July 21, 1796 Robert dies at the age of 37 from heart disease. That same day his last son Maxwell was born. Some doctors believed he died from excessive drinking and others think it was from hard labor as a child. More than 10,000 people attended his burial. His popularity was nothing compared to what it has reached since. Every year on the day of his birth, Scotts celebrate Robert Burns’ birth with a supper where they address the haggis, the ladies, and whiskey.

During Robert’s life he wrote two collections containing 268 songs. Some of his most familiar and best-loved poems in the English language are “Auld Lang Syne” and “Comin’ thro’ the Rye”. Burns wasn’t confined to song though. Two of his greatest masterpieces are “Tam O’ Shanter” and “The Jolly Beggars” are two narrative poems that he wrote during his lifetime. Burns had a fine sense of humor which is reflected in his satirical, descriptive, and playful verse. He was mostly popular with Scots because of the way he depicts Scottish rural life like in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”.

Burns frequently liked to satirize the Presbyterian Church because of its doctrine on predestination. He also wrote a poem based from a clergy man that he didn’t like that was from the Presbyterian Church. Robert’s life went from as bad as it could possibly be to becoming the greatest writer in Scottish history. He saw many hard times through his life and he managed to pull through them and stride and now has a holiday that celebrates the day he was born and to celebrate his achievements.

Songs of Robert

Robert Burns , the great Scottish poet, was also a collector of his native land’s folksongs. Working with somewhat less scholarly rigor than today’s enthnomusicologists, but certainly with the heart and poetic ear that have made his verses so well-loved, Burns traveled all over Scotland collecting native musical materials. He did not compose tunes himself, but rather wrote new words for existing tunes or revised existing works to produce better poetry.

Many of his efforts were published in the contemporary collection Scots Musical Museum. For this disc the material has been taken from James Dick’s 1903 publication of Burns’s songs, which includes only tunes and text and no accompaniment. To this material singer Susan Rode Morris and harpsichordist Phebe Craig have brought the spirit of 18th Century improvisation, setting each tune in a spirited manner that might have been heard at hearthside in the Scottish Highlands two centuries ago. (Tytler, 22)

Morris and Craig are versatile musicians. Their previous recordings have included a disc of songs by Henry Purcell (Nov/Dec 1993). Morris is well-known for her work with the Ensemble Alcatraz as well. They have studied Scottish music with fiddler Alasdair Fraser and have developed an interpretive style that works beautifully. Morris has a lifting, agile voice and a wide emotional range, from the biting swagger of ‘I hae a wife o’ my ain’ to the bittersweet love song ‘Ae fond kiss’. (Veitch, 23)

Sheis as natural in her poetry as the nature itself .Her approach to each song is sharp and fresh, falling in a pleasant medium between folk-singing and recital voice. Craig’s work is stunning. Few keyboard players could fashion such appropriate accompaniments to these tunes; both musical affect and text have been given ample consideration. A few harpsichord solos are also included, like the wonderfully evocative Peggy’s Lament. (Millar, 45-53)

Critic of Robert’s Work

Most of the Burns’s work highlights the place of women as external to the people of Scotland but at the same time he presents the holistic nation through his indefinite use of the image of woman. Burns, in fact, reflects working-class and Scottish emotions in his writing, but as a sensitive citizen of the nation, he is still allowed to widely represent the nation. Little’s relationship is known as difficult; as a woman, she is by definition expelled from the procedure of imagining the nation. However, Little’s poetry foregrounds how reliant the philosophy of the nation is on the construction of a gendered society.

During the last quarter of a century Scottish literature has done little to attract the attention of the world of culture. It has certainly failed to appeal to European imagination as the Irish or Norwegian literatures have appealed. (Henry, 171-80) The crass sentimentalities and utter banalities of the Kailyaird School alienated from the first sympathies of critics of taste and insight. Scotsmen of perspicacity and experience could not but feel depressed at the popular vogue of a cult which they were aware frequently afforded only a base caricature of their countrymen, paving the way for the grosser tradition of Lauderism. Nor to Scotsmen of liberal views did the somewhat artless impulse to concentrate the entire literary thought and homage of the nation upon the achievement of Robert Burns, however great, appear as likely to be conducive to the healthy or catholic expansion of Scottish literary life or activity.

Those of them, more familiar with the genius and tradition of the older and more courtly Scottish poets, Douglas, Hendryson, Dunbar, and Lyndesay, and with the tradition, magical and intense, of the northern balladeers, recognized in these a spirit as genuinely native and technically more worthy of affection and close study than the mark of their successors. While worshipping, Burns, ‘this side idolatry,’ they wholeheartedly detested the host of uninspired plagiarists who succeeded him and deplored the descent of Scottish poetry into an abyss of infamous cliché and mechanical reiteration. (Henderson, 43-49)

It was, indeed, inevitable that the whole race of poetasters should have misconstrued and misapprehended the essentials of the Burnsian composition, confounding as they did an inspired simplicity, a great lyric artlessness, with mere banality. Incapable of discerning the true merits of a tonic gift, the quality of which probably remains unsurpassed, they labored under the delusion that anything couched in Scots must naturally possess an equal excellence with the effortless cadences of a great natural artist, who sang as spontaneously and with all the perfervid enchantment of a thrush in a morning garden. From the death of Burns to the end of the late War may, perhaps, be regarded as the most jejune and uninspired period in Scottish letters.

Not only was it parasitical to a great name in a manner that scarcely any other literature can ever have been, its history was almost utterly devoid of those frequent regroupings and reorientations of the literary elements which are regarded by the superficial as the manifestations of originality; for, though ‘originality’ is actually incapable of attainment, the surest sign of artistic vitality is its endeavor. This, within the period alluded to, was almost wholly invisible, and old men, and some young ones, and maundered on in the Burns tradition. But ‘the War changed all that.’

It achieved what nothing else could have achieved, because it removed for a while large numbers of Scots from the Caledonian scene, and permitted them a view of a larger world; and this estrangement had the effect it ever has on the Scottish mind–a marked quickening of the patriotic sense, mingled with a desire for new things. (Magnus, 95-101) It is with these post-War developments–and the way in which what preceded them in regard to Scottish arts and affairs during the past two or three decades appears in the light of these developments.

Burns’s work draws full attention to the ambiguities and vagueness innate in the imagination of The Britain of eighteen century. In almost all his poems, songs, and letters, he adopts a variety of perspectives, identifying himself at different times as both a Scottish patriot and a British citizen. (Kinsley, 112-19) In works such as “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” and “Scotch Drink,” Burns speaks of his allegiance to Scotland. Yet in other poems such as “The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer, to … the Scotch Representatives in the House of Commons,” he harnesses this patriotism to the larger enterprise of representing Britain. (Gregory, 119-26) After visiting Stirling Castle, which occasionally housed the old Scottish Parliament, he was moved to scratch the following poem on the window of his room:

HERE Stewarts once in triumph reign’d,
And laws for Scotland’s weal ordain’d;
But now unroof’d their Palace stands,
Their sceptre’s fall’n to other hands;
Fallen indeed, and to the earth,
Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth
The injur’d STEWART-line are gone,
A Race outlandish fill their throne;
An idiot race, to honor lost;
Who know them best despise them most.

Yet he also wrote that he had always been a fervent supporter of the Hanoverian cause and the “sacred KEYSTONE OF OUR ROYAL ARCH CONSTITUTION.” He joined the Dumfries Volunteers during the war against France and requested (and obtained) a military funeral. (Williams, 111)


In conclusion, Robert’s life went from as bad as it could possibly be to becoming the greatest writer in Scottish history. He saw many hard times through his life and he managed to pull through them and stride and now has a holiday that celebrates the day he was born and to celebrate his achievements. Scots are evidently not interested sufficient to keep Burns’s memory going by paying for entrance to these shrines, so the Scottish Executive has asked the National Trust for Scotland to do something. The trust says taxpayers will have to foot the bill.

His poems, in verse, diction and manner, are full of English echoes, and derive from Shenstone, Gray and others of that time. The only distinctive element they have is that now and then the irrepressible genius of the man, his rustic, national individuality, bursts, like a sudden gush of clear water, for a line or two, out of the dull expanse of his imitative verse. He should have done, with all impulses on his own part to write in English, and with all requests from others to do so. Poets should cling to their natural vehicle, to their native song. When Burns put on English dress, his singing robes slipped off him, his genius moved in fetters, he lost his distinction, his wit ran away, his passion was not natural; above all, the lovely charm of his words–their pleasant surprises, their delicate shades of expression, even their subtle melodies like the melodies of Nature herself, of the wind in the trees, of the brook over the pebbles, of the wild whispering of versatile colors and melodies of Nature.

Works Cited

  • Gregory Smith G Professor; Scottish Literature (Macmillan, 1919) 119-26
  • Henderson T. F. Scottish Vernacular Literature, (1898) 43-49
  • Henry Grey Graham: Scottish Men of Letters in the Eighteenth Century, (Black, 1908) 171-80
  • Ian McIntyre, Dirt and Deity: A Life of Robert Burns (London: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 398
  • Kinsley, James (ed.) (2001) The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns Oxford: Clarendon Press. Pp 112-119
  • Magnus Maclean; The Literature of the Highlands, (Blackie, 1925) 95-101
  • Millar J. H. A Literary History of Scotland, (Unwin, 1903). 45-53
  • Tytler, S. and Watson: History and Poetry of the Scottish Border. 2 vols. Vol II Edinburgh, 1999 pp 22
  • Veitch, John. The Feeling for Nature in Scottish Poetry: 2 vols. Vol. II Edinburgh, 1990 pp 23
  • Williams, John: History of Robert Burn’s Revolutionary Poems: Oxford University Press: New York 2002 pp 111
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