Last reviewed: June 2018
January 25, 1759
Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland
July 21, 1796
Although Robert Burns died at the age of thirty-seven, he lived with more intensity and produced more memorable writing than most authors who live twice as long. He is one of the great British poets of the eighteenth century, one who succeeded in capturing the confusions, volatility, and joy of his age. Robert Burns
Burns became acquainted with hard work early, on the family farm in Ayrshire, a rural part of southwest Scotland, where he grew up. His father, William Burnes, as he chose to spell the surname, was a poor tenant farmer who was kept in constant poverty by high rents and poor soil. By the age of twelve, Robert had been put to work in the fields, and he was doing a man’s work at fifteen. Even while laboring strenuously, however, Burns was an avid reader, and he stole what moments he could to read, among others, Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Dryden, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, and the philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith.
The three major influences of Burns’s early years were his father, a stern, upright, moderate Presbyterian, whom Burns immortalized in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” (1786); local folk songs and legends; and the eighteenth century Scottish Revival. His earliest schooling he received from John Murdoch, a scholar hired by the farmers of the district, and from the parish school in Dalrymple. In 1773 he was sent to Murdoch’s school at Ayr for a brief period. The old notion that Burns was completely uneducated is quite inaccurate. He learned French well enough to read in that language, and he was well grounded in English grammar. During the summer of 1777, while living with an uncle at Ballochneil, he studied mathematics and surveying under Hugh Rodger, the schoolmaster at nearby Kirkoswald.
Throughout Burns’s early life his family moved from one poor farm to another. They moved from Mount Oliphant to Lochlie in 1777 and from Lochlie to Mossgiel in 1784 after Burns’s father died. As a possible source of income Robert tried to learn to dress flax in Irvine, but the work was uncongenial to him; when the flax shop burned down, he returned home. He then spent four years, together with his younger brothers, trying to make the farm at Mossgiel pay. By this time Burns had already started those romantic activities for which he became so well known. He had had affairs with Jean Armour and Mary Campbell by this period in his life, and, far more important, he had started writing verse. He began “The Jolly Beggars” as early as 1785, and this was preceded by several short songs and poems.
By the time he was twenty-five many of Burns’s most strongly expressed ideas had begun to take shape in his mind. One of the most important of these was his mocking attitude toward Calvinism. Burns devoted much of his verse to exposing what he considered the hypocrisies and pomposities of Calvinism, and he was ever an enemy of the false, seemingly devout ministers, one of whom he pictures mercilessly in “Holy Willie’s Prayer” (1799). Burns opposed the doctrine of predestination and oppression in all forms, and he tended to be suspicious of authority. Of equal importance was Burns’s love of the countryside and its people. He was always primarily interested in the human significance of things, and, though not a nature poet in the Wordsworthian sense, tried to show the effects of the rural environment on the people he knew. As someone who lived most of his life in small villages, Burns had close connections with the peasantry. His rustic characters cope with a simple life and endure simple hardships.
After several years of fruitless and backbreaking work at the Mossgiel farm, Burns suddenly achieved success. The first edition of his poems was published in the nearby town of Kilmarnock in 1786, and overnight Burns became famous. That he should achieve fame with this group of poems, titled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, is only fitting, because it contains some of his best work: “The Holy Fair,” “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” and “Address to the Deil.” In this volume Burns expresses his love of simple folk and his hatred of specious religion.
Owing to the success of this first edition, Burns went to Edinburgh, where he was applauded by the critics. There he also had another love affair, with a Mrs. M’Lehose; this was not a hearty country romance but an artificial, rather conventional one. Burns, who had received only twenty pounds for the first edition of the Kilmarnock poems, got four hundred for the second edition in 1787. With this money he traveled, had the leisure to write, and was able to marry and buy property of his own. In 1788 he married Jean Armour, the mother of his four children, and settled down on a farm at Ellisland, near Dumfries. In the following year he was given a post as an excise officer, and in 1791 he moved to Dumfries, where he remained for the rest of his life.
The last years of Burns’s life were spent in further writing, including the three hundred songs he contributed to two collections of Scottish songs, James Johnson’s Musical Museum (1787-1797) and George Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1793-1805). He also wrote a fevered defense of the French Revolution and its principles, evidence of the fact that Burns was a social rebel who never blindly accepted the traditional order of things. In the matter of the revolution, however, his outspoken advocacy earned him contempt from many of his fellow citizens. There is considerable disagreement about the last five years of Burns’s life. Some biographers believe it to have been a time of dissipation and increasing ill temper, whereas others paint a portrait of Burns as a tired but respected member of society. It is certain, however, that he suffered from melancholy and fits of extreme depression during his last years. His health had never been completely restored after the rigors of his youth, and he declined rapidly in his mature years, dying in Dumfries on July 21, 1796.
Burns led a far from happy life. He was always under the burden of poverty, and, although he was socially minded and always a social success, he saw too realistically the faults and weaknesses of his fellow human beings ever to enjoy complete happiness. Moreover, his love affairs often gave him pain, and in his poems about women there is a note of sadness and regret. Yet his warm and often tender poetry has earned for him a high place among writers of his own time and has made him the national poet of Scotland. Burns was not a great original thinker; he owes much to Robert Fergusson and Allan Ramsay, as regards both content and style. His strengths, however, are his absolute sincerity, his moral honesty, and his power to supply telling and vivid poetic details. Perhaps the most appealing quality of Burns’s verse is the prominent personal note. Burns was a poet for everyone. His brief songs as well as his longer poems speak directly of the simple joys of love, friendship, and everyday occupations.