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Robert Burns

New Year's Eve celebrations wouldn't be the same without a chorus of Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796). In his poetry Burns (1759-1796) celebrated the beauty and culture of Scotland. He is known for using the Scots language in his poems, and we celebrate 'Burns Night' on the 25th of January as a way to honour Burns to this day.

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Robert Burns

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New Year's Eve celebrations wouldn't be the same without a chorus of Robert Burns' 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796). In his poetry Burns (1759-1796) celebrated the beauty and culture of Scotland. He is known for using the Scots language in his poems, and we celebrate 'Burns Night' on the 25th of January as a way to honour Burns to this day.

Robert Burns, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Robert Burns is celebrated for his use of the Scots Language in his poems.

Robert Burns biography

Robert Burns Biography
Birth:25th January 1759
Death:21st July 1796
Father:William Burnes
Mother:Agnes Broun
Spouse/Partners:Jean Armour (1788-1796)
Children:12
Famous Poems:
Nationality:Scottish
Literary Period:Romanticism

Early life and education

Robert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland. He was the eldest of seven children in a poor farming family. He and his brother Gilbert were first educated at Alloway School, but its closure due to financial trouble meant the brothers were educated for a time by John Murdoch, who had studied in Edinburgh.

After Murdoch left for a job in Dumfries, Burns' father educated the brothers for a short while before they attended Dalrymple School. From the age of 12 Burns worked on his father's farm in Ayrshire, though the farm didn't make much money. The family moved from farm to farm, finding no financial success at any of them. After Robert Burns' father died in 1784, the family moved to a farm in Mossgiel.

Meeting Jean Armour (1767-1834)

In 1785, a servant on the Burns family farm called Elizabeth Paton (1760-c.1799) gave birth to Burns' first child. In late 1785 Jean Armour, from the nearby town of Mauchline, became pregnant with twins by Burns.

He wrote a marriage pledge for Armour in 1786, but her father wouldn't allow the marriage, destroying the pledge and sending her to live with family in Paisley. Armour's father pursued Burns with the Kirk (the Church of Scotland's authorities) for having a relationship out of wedlock.

After Jean was sent away to Paisley, Burns started a short-lived relationship with Mary Campbell (c. 1763-1786) who was commonly known as 'Highland Mary'.

Planned emigration to Jamaica and early success

In 1786, Burns was in serious financial difficulty with the failing Mossgiel farm, so he planned to emigrate to Jamaica for work. To raise money for his journey to Jamaica, he published his first poetry collection Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in the summer of 1786. This collection is commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition. The success of this collection improved his finances and his fame as a poet started to blossom.

Mary Campbell died of typhus in October 1786, not long before Burns' planned departure for Jamaica. The success of his first poetry collection meant that he could scrap his planned emigration to Jamaica and instead take a short trip to Edinburgh to prepare the second edition and look for a patron. He published the Edinburgh edition in 1787 and toured Scotland.

Burns didn't find a patron, but in Edinburgh in October 1787, Burns started editing a collection of traditional Scottish folk songs called The Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803). This six-volume collection went on to feature around 160 of his songs, including his famous love poem 'A Red, Red Rose' (1794). The fifth edition features his well-known song 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796).

Meeting Agnes Maclehose (1758-1841)

In December 1787 Burns met Agnes Maclehose (1759-1841) at a tea party in Edinburgh. She was a well-educated woman from Glasgow who had separated from her husband in 1780. Burns and Maclehose started a platonic affair via their letters. They called each other 'Sylvander' and 'Clarinda' in their letters for confidentiality.

In 1787 Jean Armour became pregnant with Burns' second pair of twins and her family kicked her out. In February 1788 he started supporting Armour by giving her a place to stay. Soon after, the Kirk formally recognised that Burns and Armour were married.

Burns' relationship with Agnes Maclehose faded when Burns left Edinburgh in 1788 to live with Armour as husband and wife. By the time Burns left Edinburgh, Maclehose's maid had given birth to Burns' child.

Later life and death

In June 1788 Burns and his wife moved to Ellisland Farm near Dumfries. He started work as an excise officer (tax collector) in 1789. The farm was a financial failure, so they moved to Dumfries in 1791.

In 1792 Maclehose left Scotland for the West Indies to reunite with her estranged husband. When Burns learned of her plan to leave in 1791, knowing that he would never see her again, he sent her the love poem 'Ae Fond Kiss' (1791) as a parting gift.

Burns died on 21 July 1796 in Dumfries, Scotland. Burns and Armour had nine children together. Their last child was born in 1796, not long after Burns' death. He fathered 12 children in total. There is not enough scientific evidence to be sure what he died of. The story is that he died because of excessive drinking and/or a heart condition, a much-debated theory. Armour lived in their house in Dumfries until she died in 1834. Only three of her and Robert Burns' nine children lived longer than she did.

Robert Burns: poems and major works

Robert Burns is a prominent Scottish voice in his major poetic works.

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786)

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition) was Robert Burns' first published poetry collection. It was an immediate success and a few thousand copies were sold. The theme of the following two famous poems from the collection is religion.

In the following two poems, Burns satirically assesses prevalent religious beliefs of his time.

'Address to the Deil' (1786)

This is a satirical poem written in 1785, poking fun at traditional ideas of Satan. The poem is divided into three parts:

  1. A mock summoning of the Devil using the belittling nicknames people use for the Devil.
  2. A retelling of the Devil's deeds starting with what the speaker learned from his grandmother's folktales, before moving into a light-hearted summary of biblical and theological accounts (e.g., Adam and Eve in Eden, the temptation of Job).
  3. A goodbye to the Devil, with the speaker asserting that he could easily outsmart him.

The poem challenges the Calvinist idea that we must live our lives under a persistent fear of Hell. Burns rejected this Calvinist idea as a killer of life's pleasures.

Calvinism - A branch of Protestantism founded in the 16th Century by John Calvin, a Protestant reformer. The Calvinists believed the Bible had ultimate authority and that its teachings were all we needed to understand God. They wanted the fear of Hell to guide how we live our lives.

Burns prefaces his poem with two lines from John Milton's epic poem 'Paradise Lost' (1677). The speaker of Burns' poem uses a familiar and lecturing tone to reduce Satan from the powerful figure of 'Paradise Lost' to a laughable creature.

In the eighth stanza, the speaker describes how scared he was when he thought he saw Satan in the form of some reeds while out walking one night. His fear (and gullibility) reached a climax when a duck's quack came from amongst the reeds.

Language Devices in 'Address to the Deli'

'Address to the Deil' uses Habbie stanzas, a form most often used in satirical poems and elegy parodies.

Habbie stanza - A six-line stanza with an AAABAB rhyme scheme. Lines with an A rhyme are in iambic tetrameter, while lines with a B rhyme are in iambic dimeter. This type of stanza is named after a 17th century Scottish poem about a town piper's death.

Iambic - A pattern of alternating stresses (unstressed then stressed) in a line of poetry.

Iambic tetrameter - Poetic meter of alternating stresses with four stressed syllables on a line.

Iambic dimeter - Poetic meter of alternating stresses with two stressed syllables on a line.

Stanza One of 'Address to the Deil'

Line 1: O thou! whatever title suit thee,—

Line 6: To scaud poor wretches!

'The Holy Fair' (1786)

A humorous poem written in 1765 describing the hustle and bustle of a biannual country fair in Mauchline. It was supposed to prepare people for Communion, but Burns' poem shows us how it had become simply an excuse for a good time.

The speaker of the poem encounters three young ladies called Fun, Superstition, and Hypocrisy. Fun offers to show the speaker around the lively and crowded fair. The fair is a melting pot of contradiction between religion and secular society: there are a number of preachers at the fair preaching morality, which contrasts with all the drinking and lovemaking of the preachers' audiences.

In the poem, while some fair-goers are thinking about their sins and sighing in prayer, others are busy thinking about their clothes and cursing people who step on their shoes:

Here some are thinkin' on their sins,An' some upo' their claes;Ane curses feet that fyl'd his shins,Anither sighs an' prays:

By the end of the fair and the later lunch parties, some revellers are feeling spiritually full, while others are full of alcohol:

There's some are fou o' love divine;

There's some are fou o' brandy;

'The Holy Fair' language devices

The poem follows in the footsteps of the Scots literary tradition of describing popular festivals and celebrations. 'The Holy Fair' closely follows the form of 'Hallow-Fair' (1772) by Scottish poet Robert Fergusson which describes the shady characters at a Halloween festival - the drunks, the gamblers, and the con-artists.

'The Holy Fair' contains 27 stanzas of nine lines each. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDE. There are eight syllables on the A and C lines (iambic tetrameter), and six syllables on the B and D lines (iambic trimeter).

Iambic tetrameter - Poetic meter of alternating stresses with four stressed syllables on a line.

Iambic trimeter - Poetic meter of alternating stresses with three stressed syllables on a line.

Opening Lines of 'The Holy Fair'

Upon a simmer Sunday morn, (A rhyme, iambic tetrameter)

When Nature's face is fair, (B rhyme, iambic trimeter)

Robert Burns: themes

There are two main themes in Burn's poetry: Religion and Love.

Religious themes in Burns' poetry

Burns was brought up in a Presbyterian household and was influenced by the religious and moral values of the 18th century.

In many of his poems, Burns reflects on the nature of religion and the role it plays in society. He often employs religious imagery and references to the Bible in his work, using these to explore questions of morality, spirituality, and the human condition. For example, in his poem 'The Cotter's Saturday Night,' Burns uses the image of a humble cotter (tenant farmer) at prayer to reflect on the virtues of simplicity, humility, and devotion.

Burns also wrote poems that address issues of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. For example, in his poem 'To a Louse,' Burns writes about the hypocrisy of those who judge others based on their appearance or religion, rather than their character.

In many of his poems, Burns is critical of the formalities and excesses of religious institutions, instead valuing a more personal, individual faith. This is seen in poems like 'Holy Willie's Prayer,' where Burns satirizes the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of a pious churchgoer.

Overall, the theme of religion in Burns' poetry is complex and multifaceted. Burns employs religious imagery and references to explore questions of morality, spirituality, and the human condition, often taking a critical and satiric approach to formal religion and its excesses.

Themes of love and separation in the love poems

Burns' love affairs were the inspiration for much of his love poetry. He wrote some of his love poems as songs so he noted the tunes he wanted these love poems set to. The tunes were traditional Scottish folk tunes.

Love poems for Jean Armour

Jean Armour was the inspiration for 14 of Burns' love poems, notably 'Of A' the Airts the Wind can Blaw' (1788) which expressed his love for her and as Burns noted was written during their honeymoon:

The powers aboon can only ken,

To whom the heart is seen,

That nane can be sae dear to me

As my sweet lovely Jean!

Burns' earlier poem, 'The Belles of Mauchline' (1784), was written about six young ladies renowned in Mauchline for their beauty. One of them was Jean Armour. In the poem, Burns tells of the beauty of each of the young ladies, before concluding:

But Armour's the jewel for me o' them a'.

Love poems for Mary Campbell

Burns had a short relationship in 1786 with Mary Campbell, who died of typhus in October that year. She is commonly known as 'Highland Mary'. Some believe Campbell was pregnant with Burns' child when she died, though this is debated. The theme of separation features in the following two poems Burns wrote for Campbell.

'Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary?' (1786)

Some believe this poem indicates that Burns intended to take Campbell with him on his planned trip to Jamaica, this is an often-debated point. The poem opens with:

Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,And leave auld Scotia's shore?Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,Across th' Atlantic roar?

In the poem's final two stanzas, the speaker first asks Campbell to promise him her "faith" and her "lily-white hand" (possibly a suggestion of marriage). The speaker then curses the timing of their falling in love as the reason they cannot stay together (i.e., they have fallen in love just as the speaker is due to leave for Jamaica).

'The Highland Lassie O' (1786)

Burns' relationship with Mary Campbell also inspired this famous poem. Here the speaker is planning on leaving for Jamaica soon. He is certain that the love of his 'faithful Highland Lassie' would last through their separation:

Altho' thro' foreign climes I range,

I know her heart will never change;

For her bosom burns with honor's glow,

My faithful Highland Lassie, O-

Love poem for Agnes Maclehose

The theme of separation features in Burns' well-known love poem 'Ae Fond Kiss' (1791). This poem was a parting gift for Maclehose before she left for the West Indies to reunite with her estranged husband. In this poem, the speaker asks Nancy for one last kiss before they separate, never to see each other again.

The speaker is heartbroken that they must separate. Burns refers to Maclehose in the poem as 'my Nancy' instead of her confidential pen-name, 'Clarinda', which he usually used in his letters. Though their parting fills the speaker of the poem with 'deep despair' and 'heart-wrung tears', he wishes Nancy 'peace, enjoyment, love and pleasure' for the future.

Robert Burns: quotes

Quote 1 from 'Epistle to a Friend' (1786)

Burns sent a letter in 1786 to his young friend Andrew Aiken. He starts by saying that the advice he's going to share is something between a 'song' and a 'sermon', then encourages Aiken to value honour and independence. Burns advises him to be wary of losing faith in God, but also of strict religion:

The fear o' hell's a hangman's whip,

To haud the wretch in order;

But where ye feel your honour grip,

Let that aye be your border;

Quote 2 from 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796)

This well-known poem is traditionally sung on New Year's Eve across the UK to welcome the new year. The poem calls on us to think back on old friends and to celebrate old memories. 'For auld lang syne' means 'for old time's sake' in the Scots language.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And auld lang syne!

Quote 3 from 'Address to a Haggis' (1786)

Burns' birthday (25 January) is celebrated as 'Burns Night' in Scotland. At Burns Night dinners, traditional Scottish food is served, such as haggis with 'neeps and tatties'. That's a pudding made from offal and mincemeat served with swede and potatoes. The meal might start with a reading of Burns' humorous poem 'Address to a Haggis'. The opening stanza addresses the 'sonsie face' (plump face) of the haggis, and claims it is better than all other sausages with its 'painch, tripe, or thairm' (stomach, tripe, or intestines).

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o' the puddin'-race!

Aboon them a' ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thaim:

Weel are ye worthy o' a grace

As lang's my arm.

Robert Burns: facts and importance to Literature

Burns is Scotland's most celebrated poet. 'Auld Lang Syne' is sung every New Year's Eve across the UK, and a celebration called Burns Night on the 25th of January marks his birthday.

Burns made great efforts to preserve and actively use the Scots language at a time when more and more readers across the UK were being surrounded by literature in English. He made a significant contribution to the Scottish literary tradition by polishing and preserving traditional Scottish folk songs for anthologies and collections.

Burns is often described as a pre-Romantic poet.

Romanticism was a literary movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the backdrop of which was the rise of big industry, the expansion of coal-guzzling factories, and a growing preference for science's rigid logic over blind faith.

The Romantics aimed to bring people back to a time before all of this by emphasising the beauty of the natural world and the depth of human emotion in their writing. His celebration of Scotland's natural beauty, his promotion of individualism, and his exploration of human emotion in his poetry have led some critics to view him as an early contributor to the later literary movement of Romanticism, hence the descriptor pre-Romantic.

In his poem 'The Answer' (1787), Burns describes how, even in his youth while he was busy toiling away on the family farm, he had a strong desire to celebrate and record Scotland's beauty and culture, a desire that he felt would drive him till his dying day:

Ev’n then, a wish (I mind its power) A wish, that to my latest hour Shall strongly heave my breast;

That I for poor auld Scotland’s sakeSome useful plan, or book could make,Or sing a sang at least.

Robert Burns - Key takeaways

  • Robert Burns was born on January 25th 1759 in Alloway, Scotland and he died on July 21st 1796 in Dumfries, Scotland. His birthday is still celebrated as Burns Night in Scotland and parts of England.

  • He was the eldest of seven children in a poor farming family. As he was growing up, his family moved around from farm to farm, finding little financial success.

  • His first published poetry collection Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) (commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition) was such a success that he scrapped his plan to emigrate to Jamaica.

  • Religion, separation, and love are major themes in Robert Burns' poems. He was known for using the Scots language in his poems.

  • He wrote the famous song 'Auld Lang Syne' (1788) which is traditionally sung on New Year's Eve across the UK.

Frequently Asked Questions about Robert Burns

Robert Burns died in 1796 aged 37 in Dumfries, Scotland. There is not enough scientific evidence to be certain, but the much-debated story is that he died because of excessive drinking and/or a heart condition. 

Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, Scotland. He was the eldest of seven children. His family were poor and he worked on the family farm growing up. Robert Burns died in Dumfries, Scotland in 1796. 

Robert Burns is still one of Scotland's most celebrated poets. He was born in 1759 and wrote the popular New Year's Eve celebration song 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796), and the famous love poem 'A Red, Red Rose' (1794). 

The Scottish poet Robert Burns is so famous because he used the Scots language in his poems, and helped preserve many traditional Scottish folk songs. He had 12 children, but only nine with his wife. His most famous poems include the UK's New Year's Eve celebration song 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796), and the love poem 'A Red, Red Rose' (1794). 

Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote over 550 poems in his lifetime, including the popular New Year's Eve celebration song 'Auld Lang Syne' (1796), and the famous love poem 'A Red, Red Rose' (1794). Robert Burns helped preserve many traditional Scottish folk songs. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What nicknames did Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose use for each other in their letters?

How many lines are in each stanza of 'Ae Fond Kiss'?

How many rhyming couplets are in each stanza of 'Ae Fond Kiss' (1791)?

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