Burns, Robert

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Burns, Robert

Robert Burns, 1759–96, Scottish poet.

Life

The son of a hard-working and intelligent farmer, Burns was the oldest of seven children, all of whom had to help in the work on the farm. Although always hard pressed financially, the elder Burns, until his death in 1784, encouraged his sons with their education. As a result, Burns as a boy not only read the Scottish poetry of Ramsay and the collections compiled by Hailes and Herd, but also the works of Pope, Locke, and Shakespeare. By 1781, Burns had tried his hand at several agricultural jobs without success. Although he had begun writing, and his poems were circulated widely in manuscript, none were published until 1786. At this time he had already begun a life of dissipation, and he was not only discouraged but poor and was involved simultaneously with several women.

Burns decided to marry Mary Campbell and migrate to Jamaica. To help finance the journey, he published at Kilmarnock Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), which was an immediate success. Mary Campbell died before she and Burns could marry, and Burns changed his mind about migration. He toured the Highlands, brought out a second edition of his poems at Edinburgh in 1787, and for two winters was socially prominent in the Scottish city. In 1788 he married Jean Armour, who had borne him four children, and retired to a farm at Ellisland. By 1791 Burns had failed as a farmer, and he moved to nearby Dumfries, where he held a position as an exciseman. He died at 37 after a severe attack of rheumatic fever.

Verse

Burns's art is at its best in songs such as "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton," "My Heart's in the Highlands," and "John Anderson My Jo." Two collections contain 268 of his songs—George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (6 vol., 1793–1811) and James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum (5 vol., 1787–1803). Some of these, such as "Auld Lang Syne" and "Comin' thro' the Rye," are among the most familiar and best-loved poems in the English language. But his talent was not confined to song; two descriptive pieces, "Tam o' Shanter" and "The Jolly Beggars," are among his masterpieces.

Burns had a fine sense of humor, which was reflected in his satirical, descriptive, and playful verse. His great popularity with the Scots lies in his ability to depict with loving accuracy the life of his fellow rural Scots, as he did in "The Cotter's Saturday Night." His use of dialect brought a stimulating, much-needed freshness and raciness into English poetry, but Burns's greatness extends beyond the limits of dialect. His poems are written about Scots, but, in tune with the rising humanitarianism of his day, they apply to a multitude of universal problems.

Bibliography

See his poems (ed. by J. L. Robertson, 1953); letters (ed. by D. Ferguson and G. Ross Roy, 2 vol., 1985); biographies by M. Lindsay (2d ed. 1968), R. T. Fitzhugh (1970), and R. Crawford (2008); studies by D. Daiches (1978), H. Hecht (1985), and C. McGuirk (1985).

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