Yesterday marked the infamous night of revelry dedicated to a man who is not only Scotland’s favourite poet, but also her favourite son: the one and only Robert Burns. Year after year, on the anniversary of his birth, Scots and non-Scots alike spend the night at a supper where they address the haggis and the ladies, accompanying every course with whisky. To my knowledge, Burns is the only poet for whom there exists such an honour. Does Chaucer have a night devoted to him? No. Does Shakespeare? No. So, what’s the deal with this Robert Burns guy?
He was born in 1759, to William Burness and Agnes Broun, who were poor tenant farmers in Ayrshire. As the eldest of seven, Burns spent much of his youth working on his parents’ farm. Despite their poverty, Burness employed a tutor for his children, and Burns soon became very well read. At this stage, his tutor John Murdoch could not foresee that the pupil who ‘made rapid progress in reading and was just tolerable at writing’ would grow up to become Scotland’s national Bard. Burns wrote his first poem ‘My Handsome Nell’, an ode to the staples of life (whiskey and women), aged only 15. His father died in 1784, leaving the running of the farm to his sons, although Robert was more inclined towards poetry than towards physical labour. He had a series of relationships with women, which resulted in several illegitimate children, including twins born to Jean Armour, who later became his wife.
On the point of departing for the West Indies to avoid his mounting problems, Burns published his first collection, ‘Poems – Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – Kilmarnock Edition’, which was based on a broken love affair. It was an instant success. Labelled the ‘Ploughman Poet’, Burns travelled Scotland, eventually arriving in Edinburgh, where he joined an eminent group of intellectuals. He soon became a national celebrity, working chiefly with James Johnson, and later with George Thomson. For these men, Burns compiled, and added to, two great compilations of Scottish songs: ‘The Scot’s Musical Museum’, and ‘A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs’. The last years of Burns’ life were spent writing masterpieces such as ‘Tam O’Shanter’ and ‘The Lea Rig’. He died aged 37, on the same day as his wife gave birth to his last son, Maxwell.
More than 400 of Burns’ songs and poems are still in existence today, and his popularity has only increased over time, with his popularity stretching even to Russia and Japan. His enduring appeal is, in part, due to his links with all things truly Scottish, particularly the Scotch whisky industry. The poems are satirical yet sentimental, examining themes of love, human flaws, and the natural world. What makes them unique is the way in which Burns writes: his artistry and use of language (in both Scots and English), his skill at rhyming, his use of traditional forms in a new way. He is truly a poet who speaks to all, and a poet for all seasons.
So, you might ask, if Burns has such universal appeal and is famous worldwide, what has he written? Well, first and foremost, I believe that nearly every one of you will have heard (and quite possibly sung) ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Well, now you know a bit more about its composer! Furthermore, anyone who studied John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, may recognise the title as a quote from Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’: ‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley.’ Some of the more feminist-inclined amongst you might appreciate Burns’ poem ‘The Rights of Woman’, and particularly this line: ‘The Rights of Woman merit some attention.’ The rights of which Burns speaks are ‘protection’, ‘decorum’ and ‘admiration’. Although this may seem condescending to the modern day reader, this poem was still relatively progressive for its time.
However, Burns’ true genius surely lies in the pure beauty of his verse. Anyone looking for Valentine’s Day inspiration needs to look no further than Burn’s ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, sure to make any girl weak at the knees (don’t quote me on that). Finally I leave you with a verse from ‘Tam O’Shanter’, which captures perfectly the transience of beauty and nature:
“But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, it’s bloom is shed;
Or, like the snow-fall in the river,
A moment white, then melts forever.”
If that doesn’t convince you to read more from the lovable ‘Rabbie’ Burns, I don’t know what will.