As his fellow countrymen around the world celebrate the anniversary of his birth, gordon lucy looks at the life of the legendary poet
Robert Burns is celebrated worldwide. His appeal is international because he not only loved the opposite sex but humanity. Burns’ reputation remains undiminished more than two centuries after his death.
Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on January 25 1759. His father, William Burnes, was a Scottish tenant farmer. His mother was Agnes Brown Burnes. The young Burns grew up in a home like the one he described in his poem ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’.
Robert Burns became Scotland’s greatest poet. He wrote both in English and Scots, often called Lallans.
Scots is the language of the Scottish Lowlands and before the Union of the Crowns in 1603 it was the official language of Scotland. After 1603 the prestige and status of Scots declined dramatically. Significantly, the National Covenant of 1638 was written in English. The opponents of the Anglo-Scottish Union – for example Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun – framed their arguments in English prose. Indeed, some historians – for example, T C Smout – would contend that by the beginning of the 18th century Scots was the language of the poor and the uncouth.
Burns’ songs and poems attracted the admiration of Byron and Wordsworth.
It has been observed that Burns ‘speaks to Scots; he speaks to a’. Burns’s work still arouses strong patriotic feeling in the Scottish people but his humanity embraces the world, especially in poems like ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’:
‘For a’ that and a’ that.
It’s coming yet for a’ that
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brothers be for a’ that.’
‘In Man was made to mourn’ Burns recognized that:
‘Man’s inhumanity to manmakes countless thousands mourn!’
His appeal is by no means confined to home-sick Scots around the world. Burns was very popular in the former Soviet Union through the translations of Samuel Marshak. By the time Marshak died in 1964 his translations of Burns had sold more than a million copies.
Burns tended to exaggerate his lack of education. It is true that he did not attend university but nor did Thomas Telford (1757-1834), the architect and civil engineer; or Hugh Miller (1802-56), the geologist and writer; or Alexander Somerville, the journalist (1811-85). Like Burns, Telford, Miller and Somerville were famous Scots of poor parents.
In fact Burns’ Scottish education, probably the best in Europe, gave him a good grounding in English and a knowledge of French and mathematics. He read voraciously and was familiar with the work of Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare, and most of the 18th-century English writers. As a young boy he worked long hours on his father’s farm, which was not successful.
In 1784, his father died and the family moved to Mossgiel, where Robert became a tenant farmer. He worked hard, wrote poetry for his own amusement and that of his friends, and had numerous love affairs.
This farm was not profitable either, and Burns grew restless and dissatisfied. He fell in love with Jean Armour but her parents forbade her marriage to Burns. Burns turned to a new relationship with Mary Campbell, who is featured in his poetry as ‘Highland Mary’. He invited her to emigrate with him to Jamaica, but she died at the age of 23 before they could leave.
The publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in nearby Kilmarnock in 1786 brought Burns fame, if not wealth. The volume, consisting of 44 poems, was an instant success. He soon forgot all about emigrating to Jamaica.
Scottish peasant life is the focus of his poetry. ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ is written in both English and Scots. The verses in Scots describe the Cotter’s home and the introduction of the daughter’s young man. The verses expounding religious and patriotic themes are in English. ‘To a Mouse’ presents the world from the point of view of a field mouse dug up by a plough and addresses the creature in the following terms:
‘Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie,
O what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!’
He also observes that:
‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.’
Some of the work is satiric, such as ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ which takes the form of a dramatic monologue of a church elder. In the course of his musings Holy Willie unconsciously reveals his selfish hypocrisy.
‘The Holy Fair’ contrasts the conviviality of the young parishioners assembled for a prayer meeting with the exhortations of the ministers and elders, preaching damnation and hell-fire.
The ‘Ayrshire ploughman’ went to Edinburgh, where he was lionised by the great and the good. Eventually, the novelty of the ploughboy poet wore off and Burns returned to Ayrshire. Being reconciled with Jean Armour and her family, he married her in 1788. They leased a farm in Ellisland but he was still a struggling tenant farmer. After trying for a long time, in 1789 he finally obtained a post in the excise service which provided him with a steady income. He moved to Dumfries in 1791.
The outbreak of the French Revolution excited him, and some very indiscreet outbursts nearly cost him his job. However, his reputation as a good exciseman and a politic but humiliating repudiation of French revolutionary sentiments saved him. Eventually, like so many others, he turned against the French and joined the Dumfries Volunteers in 1795.
When he was in Edinburgh, Burns met James Johnson, who asked for Burns’ help in editing and rewriting songs for his Scots Musical Museum. Burns proved to be a gifted and prolific songwriter, both in writing new lyrics and in rewriting old lyrics for old Scottish tunes.
It is clear from a variety of evidence, that although Burns never claimed many of these songs as his own, he must have substantially written them. For example, he described ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as an old fragment he had discovered. Yet, apart from the chorus and probably the first stanza, the song with which we are familiar is almost certainly his.
Incidentally, Burns wrote it for a different air; not for the tune to which it is now sung. The full extent of Burns’ contribution to Scottish song will probably never be known. Because Burns considered the work to be in the service of his country he refused payment, a high-minded position he could ill afford.
Burns revealed many of his interests in his songs. His patriotism is evident in such verses as ‘Scots Wha Hae wi’ Wallace Bled’. His romantic self is expressed in his love songs, ‘My Jean’, ‘Red, Red Rose’, and ‘The Banks o’ Doon’.
He is renowned for his variety, satire and wit in verses such as ‘To a Mountain Daisy’, ‘Address to the Unco Guid’, ‘A Bard’s Epitaph’, ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’, and ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.
In 1795 Burns prophesied accurately that:
‘Ay, Jean, they’ll think more of me in a hundred years after this.’
He died of rheumatic fever the following year on July 21, the same day his wife gave birth to their youngest son. Two centuries after Burns’ death, his somewhat immodest prediction is still triumphantly correct.
• Gordon Lucy is a historian