Robert Burns

(1759—1796) poet

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was one of seven children born to a cotter near Alloway in Ayrshire. His spare time was fully employed on the ailing farm as labourer and ploughman. The experience of poverty and injustice as a youth no doubt increased his belief in the equality of men, which led him to become an ardent supporter of the early days of the French Revolution. In 1784, after the death of his father, he and his brother continued to farm, now at Mossgiel. To this period belong ‘The Cotter's Saturday Night’, ‘To a Mouse’, ‘To a Mountain Daisy’, ‘Holy Willie's Prayer’, the Epistles to Labraik, ‘The Holy Fair’, and many others.

His Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) was an immediate success and Burns found himself fêted by the literary and aristocratic society of Edinburgh. His attractive appearance and his gregarious temperament led him into a life of dissipation and amorous complexity. He was encouraged to write in the rhetorical and sentimental fashion of the day, and in this mode he wrote ‘The Lament’, ‘Despondency’, and ‘Address to Edinburgh’, but his own characteristic voice was not subdued. He collected, amended, and wrote some 200 songs for The Scots Musical Museum which includes many of his best‐known lyrics, such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘O my luve's like a red, red rose’, ‘Ye Banks and Braes’, and ‘Scots wha hae’. He contributed in 1792 to Select Scottish Airs. In 1788 he married Jean Armour, and settled on a poor farm at Ellisland, near Dumfries. A year later he secured a post as an Excise officer, and in 1791 relinquished his farming life and moved to Dumfries. Also in 1791 he published his last major poem ‘Tam O'Shanter’. Turning against the French at last, he joined the Dumfries Volunteers in 1795, dying the following year of rheumatic heart disease.

Burns wrote with equal facility in correct 18th‐cent. English and in his native Scots. The Scottish poems owe much to Scottish song, to the early Scottish poets (such as Ramsay), and to the 18th‐cent. poet Fergusson. His popularity with his fellow‐countrymen is reflected in celebrations held all over the world on ‘Burns Night’, 25 Jan., his birthday.

Subjects: Literature.

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