I have run into all kinds of dissipation and riot, Mason-meetings, drinking matches, and other mischief, to drive her out of my head, but all in vain: and now for a grand cure, the Ship is on her way home that is to take me out to Jamaica, and then, farewel dear old Scotland, and farewel dear, ungrateful Jean, for never, never will I see you more! Robert Burns was not primarily a poet by trade, but spent a large part of his life farming at which he was particularly unsuccessful. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I am so harrassed with Care and Anxiety about this farming project of mine, that my Muse has degenerated into the veriest prose-wench that ever picked cinders, or followed a Tinker. When I am fairly got into the routine of business, I shall trouble you with a longer epistle; perhaps with some queries respecting farming: at present, the world sits such a load on my mind that it has effaced almost every trace of the image of God in me.
Burns was not only a radical in his poetic style, but also in his political opinions. Some may be aware that he was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution — but interestingly, Burns changed his mind with the French invasion of Savoy and Holland:. As to France, I was her enthusiastic votary in the beginning of the business.
As well as politics, Burns was no stranger to scandal in the religious sphere. In his daily life as with religion, Burns was staunchly against any form of hypocrisy and false sentiment — especially what he saw as the over-zealous puritanism of the time :.
But of all Nonsense, Religious Nonsense is the most nonsensical; so enough, and more than enough of it—Only, by the bye, will you, or can you tell me, my dear Cunningham, why a religioso turn of mind has always a tendency to narrow and illiberalize the heart? Although Burns is often referenced as a womanizer in opposition to his romantic poetry , Burns had an incredibly tender private manner, and wrote many love letters to his numerous paramours. Among these was Mrs. Ever the walking or writing contradiction however, Burns also held some less than traditional views on romance and marriage.
Having fathered at least 12 children by at least 4 different women and even serving public penance for one relationship , he was particularly keen to impart his wisdom to one friend:.
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Overseen by a prestigious editorial board of prominent academics, led by Editor-in-Chief Michael F. Some of the activities in what is essentially a preliminary courtship ritual are frightening, requiring collective daring. Burns describes the antics, anticipation, and anxieties of the participants as they enjoy the communal event, which is concluded with food and drink:. The poem is a celebration of the family and of the lives of simple folk, sanitized of hardship, crop failure, sickness, and death.
Burns achieves this vision by focusing on a moment of domestic repose of a family reunited in love and affection. The Master and Mistress are the architects of the family circle; Jenny and "a neebor lad" seem destined to provide continuity. The gathering concludes with family worship: songs are sung and Scripture is read, including biblical accounts of human failings by way of warning.
The domestic celebration of religion within the context of traditional life is noble and good. This poem was lauded largely because of its linguistic accessibility, as a pastoral expression of nationalism, a symbolic representation of the "soul of Scotland. The cotter's good life was already an anachronism, so Burns's depiction in this early poem is antiquarian, backward-looking, and imbued with cultural nationalism--perspectives which became intensified and focused in his later work.
But by his work was already engaged in dialogue with larger cultural issues. The linguistic attributes of the poem become part of this conversation as Burns modulates from Scots into Scots English to English, poetically reflecting the dichotomy of feeling and thinking. The stability of life as described in this poem is a wonderful accommodation of traditional culture and religion; celebration of belief in God follows naturally from sharing a way of life.
But the religion that is here applauded is domestic and familial. Institutional religion Burns saw as something quite other. Institutional religion at its worst is excessively hierarchical, constraining, and above all unjust, damning some and saving others. As a child Burns was steeped in the doctrine of predestination and effectual calling, which asserts that some people are "elected" by God to be saved without any consideration of life and works; the unchosen are damned no matter what they do.
Carried to an extreme, the doctrine would permit an individual who felt assured of election to do all manner of evil, a scenario developed in Burns's "Holy Willie's Prayer. His corner of Scotland was a bastion of conservative religious position and practice: the Kirk session served as a moral watchdog, summoning congregants who strayed from the "straight and narrow" and handing out censure and punishment. Thus religion was a cultural force with which to contend.
Burns participated in the debate through poetry, circulating his material orally and in manuscript. Chief among his works in this vein is the satire "Holy Willie's Prayer. It begins with an effective invocation which articulates Willie's doctrinal stance on predestination in Standard Habbie:. The poem continues with Willie's thanks for his own "elected" status and reaches its highest moments in Willie's confession that "At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust.
The concluding stanzas recount Willie's opinion of Hamilton--"He drinks, and swears, and plays at cartes"--and his chagrin that Minister Auld was defeated.
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The poem ends with the requisite petition, calling for divine vengeance on those who disagree with him and asking blessings for himself and his like. Burns condemns both the doctrine and the practice of institutional religion. The tensions between religion and traditional culture are particularly obvious in "The Holy Fair. Again religious constraint and traditional license meet, with freedom clearly preferable:.
Probably written in but not published until after Burns's death, this work combines poetry and song to describe a joyful gathering of society's rejects: the maimed and physically deformed, prostitutes, and thieves. The work alternates life histories with narrative passages describing the convivial interaction of the social outcasts.
Despite their low status, the accounts they give of their lives reveal an unrivaled ebullience and joy. The texts are wedded to traditional and popular tunes. The choice of tunes is not random but underlines the characteristics and experiences described in the words: thus the tinker describes his occupation to the woman he has seduced away from a fiddler to the tune "Clout the Caudron," whose traditional text describes an itinerant fixer of pots and pans, that is, a seducer of women.
The assembled company exhibits acceptance of their lots in life, an acceptance made possible because their positions are shared by all present and by the power of drink to soften hardships. Stripped of all the components of human decency, lacking religious or material riches, the beggars are jolly through drink and fellowship, rich in song and story--traditional pastimes.
The cantata rushes to a riotous conclusion in which those assembled sing a rousing countercultural chorus that would certainly have received Holy Willie's harshest censure:. Burns offers no solution, but he does illustrate the beggars' humanity and, above all, their capacity for Life with a capital L--a mode of behavior that is convivial; unites people in story, song, and drink; and exudes delight and joy: traditional culture wins again. Burns worked out in poetry some of his responses to his own culture by showing opposing views of how life should be lived. Descriptions of his own experiences stimulated musings on constraint and freedom.
Critical tradition says that John Richmond and Burns observed the beggars in Poosie Nansie's "The Holy Fair" may be based on the Mauchline Annual Communion, which was held on the second Sunday of August in ; the gathering of the cotter's family may not describe a specific event but certainly depicts a generalized and typical picture. Thus Burns's own experiences became the base from which he responded to and considered larger cultural and human issues. The Kilmarnock edition changed Burns's life: it sprang him away for a year and a half from the grind of agricultural routine, and it made him a public figure.
Burns arrived in the capital city in the heyday of cultural nationalism, and his own person and works were hailed as evidences of a Scottish culture: the Scotsman as a peasant, close to the soil, possessing the "soul" of nature; the works as products of that peasant, in Scots, containing echoes of earlier written and oral Scottish literature.
Burns went to Edinburgh to arrange for a new edition of his poems and was immediately taken up by the literati and proclaimed a remarkable Scot. He procured the support of the Caledonian Hunt as sponsors of the Edinburgh edition and set to work with the publisher William Creech to arrange a slightly altered and expanded edition. He was wined and dined by the taste-setters, almost without exception persons from a different class and background from his. He was the "hit" of the season, and he knew full well what was going on: he intensified aspects of his rural persona to conform to expectations.
He represented the creativity of the peasant Scot and was for a season "Exhibit A" for a distinct Scottish heritage. Burns used this time for a variety of experiments, trying on several roles. He entered into what seems to have been a platonic dalliance with a woman of some social standing, Agnes McLehose, who was herself in an ambiguous social situation--her husband having been in Jamaica for some time. The relationship, whatever its true nature, stimulated a correspondence, in which Burns and Mrs. McLehose styled themselves Sylvander and Clarinda and wrote predictably elevated, formulaic, and seemingly insincere letters.
Burns lacks conviction in this role; but he met more congenial persons: boon companions, males whom he joined in back-street howffs for lively talk, song, and bawdry. In the egalitarian clubs and howffs Burns met more sympathetic individuals, among them James Johnson , an engraver in the initial stages of a project to print all the tunes of Scotland. That meeting shifted Burns's focus to song, which became his principal creative form for the rest of his life.
The Edinburgh period provided an interlude of potentiality and experimentation. Burns made several trips to the Borders and Highlands, often being received as a notable and renowned personage. Within a year and a half Burns moved from being a local poet to one with a national reputation and was well on his way to being the national poet, even though much of his writing during this period continued an earlier versifying strain of extemporaneous, occasional poetry.
But the Edinburgh period set the ground-work for his subsequent creativity, stimulated his revealing correspondence, and provided him with a way of becoming an advocate for Scotland as anonymous bard. If Burns were received in Edinburgh as a typical Scot and a producer of genuine Scottish products, that cultural nationalism in turn channeled his love of his country--already expressed in several poems in the Kilmarnock edition--into his songs.
Burns's support for Johnson's project is infectious; in a letter to a friend, James Candlish, he wrote in November "I am engaged in assisting an honest Scots Enthusiast, a friend of mine, who is an Engraver, and has taken it into his head to publish a collection of all our songs set to music, of which the words and music are done by Scotsmen.
Thus Burns became a conscious participant in the antiquarian and cultural movement to gather and preserve evidences of Scottish identity before they were obliterated in the cultural drift toward English language and culture. Burns's clear preference for traditional culture, and particularly for the freedom it represented, shifted intensity and direction because of the Edinburgh experience.
He narrowed his focus from all of traditional culture to one facet--song.
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Balladry and song were safe artifacts that could be captured on paper and sanitized for polite edification. This approach to traditional culture was distanced and conscious, while his earlier depiction of the larger whole of traditional culture had been immediate, intimate, and largely unconscious. Thus Edinburgh changed his artistic stance, making him more clearly aware of choices and directions as well as a conscious antiquarian. As a nationalistic work, The Scots Musical Museum was designed to reflect Scottish popular taste; like similar publications, it included traditional songs--texts and tunes--as well as songs and tunes by specific authors and composers.
Burns developed a coded system of letters for identifying contributors, suggesting to all but the cognoscenti that the songs were traditional. It is often difficult to separate Burns's work from genuinely traditional texts; he may, for example, have edited and polished the old Scots ballad "Tam Lin," which tells of a man restored from fairyland to his human lover.
Many collected texts received a helping hand--fragments were filled out, refrains and phrases were amalgamated to make a whole--and original songs in the manner of tradition were created anew. Burns's song output was enormous and uneven, and he knew it: "Here, once for all, let me apologies for many silly compositions of mine in this work. Many beautiful airs wanted words. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Burns's songs is their singability, the perspicacity with which words are joined to tune. The Song begins:.
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The songs are at their best when sung, but there may be delight in text alone, for brilliant stanzas appear most unexpectedly. The chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" encapsulates the pleasure of reunion, of shared memory:. The vignette of a couple aging together--"We clamb the hill the gither" in "John Anderson My Jo" suggests praise of continuity and shared lives.
Dunlop of Dunlop in "Old Scots Songs are, you know, a favorite study and pursuit of mine"--accurately describes his absorption with song after Edinburgh. He not only collected, edited, and wrote songs but studied them, perusing the extant collections, commenting on provenance, gathering explanatory material, and speculating on the distinct qualities of Scottish song: "There is a certain something in the old Scots songs, a wild happiness of thought and expression" and of Scottish music: "let our National Music preserve its native features.
Certainly the most critically acclaimed product of this period is a work written for Francis Grose's Antiquities of Scotland Burns suggested Alloway Kirk as a subject for the work and wrote "Tam o' Shanter" to assure its inclusion. The poem retells a legend about a man who comes upon a witches' Sabbath and unwisely comments on it, alerting the participants to his presence and necessitating their revenge.
Burns provides a frame for the legend, localizes it at Alloway Kirk, and peoples it with plausible characters--in particular, the feckless Tam, who takes every opportunity to imbibe with his buddies and avoid going home to wife and domestic responsibilities. Tam stops at a tavern for a drink and sociability and gets caught up in the flow of song, story, and laughter; the raging storm outside makes the conviviality inside the tavern doubly precious.
But it is late and Tam must go home and "face the music," having yet again gotten drunk, no doubt having used money intended for less selfish and more basic purposes. On his way home Tam experiences the events which are central to the legend; the initial convivial scene has provided the context in which such legends might be told.
After passing spots enshrined in other legends, he comes upon the witches' Sabbath revels at the ruins of Alloway Kirk, with the familiar and not quite malevolent devil, styled "auld Nick," in dog form playing bagpipe accompaniment to the witches' dance. Burns incorporates skeptical interpolations into the narrative--perhaps Tam is only drunk and "seeing things"--which replicate in poetic form aspects of an oral telling of legends. And the concluding occurrence of Tam's escapade, the loss of his horse's tail to the foremost witch's grasp, demands a response from the reader in much the same way a legend told in conversation elicits an immediate response from the listener.
Burns, then, has not only used a legend and provided a setting in which legends might be told but has replicated poetically aspects of a verbal recounting of a legend. And he has used a traditional form to celebrate Scotland's cultural past. If there were a shift of emphasis and attitude toward traditional culture as a result of the Edinburgh experience, there was also continuity.
Early and late Burns was a rhymer, a versifier, a local poet using traditional forms and themes in occasional and sometimes extemporaneous productions. These works are seldom noteworthy and are sometimes biting and satiric. He called them "little trifles" and frequently wrote them to "pay a debt. He probably would have disavowed many now attributed to him, particularly some of the mean-spirited epigrams.
Several occasional pieces, however, deserve a closer look for their ability to raise the commonplace to altogether different heights. In Burns wrote "To a Haggis," a paean to the Scottish pudding of seasoned heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, and oatmeal and boiled in an animal's stomach:. Varying accounts claim that the poem was created extempore, more or less as a blessing, for a meal of haggis.
Burns's praise has contributed to the elevation of the haggis to the status of national food and symbol of Scotland. Less well known and dealing with an even more pedestrian subject is "Address to the Tooth-Ache," prefaced "Written by the Author at a time when he was grievously tormented by that Disorder. The many songs, the masterpiece "Tam o' Shanter," and the continuation and profusion of ephemeral occasional pieces of varying merit all stand as testimony to Burns's artistry after Edinburgh, albeit an artistry dominated by a selective, focused celebration of Scottish culture in song and legend.
This narrowing of focus and direction of creativity suited his changed situation. Burns left Edinburgh in for Ellisland Farm, near Dumfries, to take up farming again; on 5 August he legally wed Jean Armour, with whom he had seven more children. For the first time in his life he had to become respectable and dependable. Suddenly the carefree life of a bachelor about town ended although he still sired a daughter in by a woman named Anne Park , and the trials of life, sanitized in "The Cotter's Saturday Night," became a reality. A year later he also began to work for the Excise; by the fall of he had completely left farming for excise work and had moved to Dumfries.
The text plays on the negative view of tax collecting, delighting that the de'il--that couthie bad guy, not Milton's Satan--has rid the country of the blight. At first he found himself back where he had started--farming and with Jean Armour--as though nothing had changed. But much had changed: Burns was now widely recognized as a poet, as a personage of note, and things were expected of him because of that, such as willingness to share a meal, to stop and talk, or to exhibit his creativity publicly.
But he was clearly in an ambiguous class position, working with his hands during the day and entertained for his mind during the evening. Perhaps the mental and physical tensions were just too much. He died on 21 July , probably of endocarditis. He was thirty-seven.
His was a hard life, perhaps made both better and worse by his fame.
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His art catapulted him out of the routine and uncertainty of the agricultural world and gave him more options than most people of his background, enabling him to be trained for the Excise. His renown gave him access to persons and places he might otherwise not have known. He seems to have felt thoroughly at home in all-male society, whether formal, as in the Tarbolton Bachelor's Club and Crochallan Fencibles, or informal. The male sharing of bawdy song and story cut across class lines.
Depicting women as objects, filled with sexual metaphors, bragging about sexual exploits, such bawdy material was a widespread and dynamic part of Scottish traditional culture. Because the sharing of the bawdy material was covert and largely oral, it is impossible to sort out definitively Burns's role in such works as the posthumously published and attributed volume, The Merry Muses of Caledonia Burns's formal education was unusual for an individual in his situation; it was more like the education of the son of a small laird.
His references to Scots, English, and Continental writers provide evidence of his awareness of literary tradition; he was remarkably knowledgeable. Fergusson provides a less sentimental, more realistic, secular account of one evening's fireside activities. Fergusson and Ramsay were direct inspirations for Burns's vernacular works. He inherited particular genres and verse forms from the oral and written traditions, for example, the Spenserian stanza and English Augustan tone of "The Cotter's Saturday Night" or the comic elegy and vernacular informality drawn from such models in Standard Habbie as Sempill's "The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson," used in "The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie.
Living in a time of extraordinary transition clearly enriched Burns's array of influences--oral and written, in Scots and English. These resources he molded and transmuted in extending the literary traditions he inherited. Both critics and ordinary people have responded to Burns. Early critical response often placed more emphasis on the man than on his poetry and focused first on his inauspicious origins, later grappling with his character.
Burns was seen by some as an ideal, as a model Scot for his revolutionary political, social, and sexual stances. By other critics his revolutionary behavior was viewed negatively: his morality, especially with reference to women and drink, was criticized, and his attitude toward the Kirk and to forms of authority and his use of obscure language were questioned. Burns the man became central because he was at one and the same time typical and atypical--a struggling tenant farmer become tax collector and poet.
If he could transcend his birth-right, achieving recognition in his lifetime and posthumous fame thereafter, so might any Scot. Thus Burns became a symbol of every person's potentiality and even of Scotland's future as an independent country. To many, Burns became a hero; almost immediately after his death a process of traditionalizing his life began.
People told one another about their personal experiences with him; repeated tellings formed a loose-knit legendary cycle which emphasizes his way with women, his impromptu poetic abilities, and his innate humanity. Many apocryphal accounts found their way into early works of criticism. But the legendary tradition has had a particularly dynamic life in a "calendar custom" called the Burns Supper. Shortly after Burns's death, groups of friends and acquaintances began to gather in his memory.
In , the centenary of his birth, memorial events were held all over Scotland and among the Scottish diaspora, and 25 January virtually became a national holiday. The memorial events have taken on a particular structure: there is a meal, one ingredient of which must be the haggis, addressed with Burns's poem before serving.
After the meal there are two speeches with fixed titles, but variable contents: "To the Immortal Memory" and "To the Lasses. The toast "To the Lasses" is usually short and humorous, paying tribute to Burns's way with women and to the many descriptive songs he wrote about them. Interspersed among these speeches and other toasts are performances of Burns's songs and poems.
Typically, the event concludes with the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" by the assembled company, arrayed in a circle and clasping hands.
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The legendary cycle about Burns and the calendar custom in his honor represent an incorporation of Burns into the developing body of oral tradition which inspired some of his own work. The Burns Suppers in particular, held by formal Burns clubs, social clubs, church groups, and gatherings throughout the world, keep Burns alive as symbol for Scotland.
Yet this widespread cultural response to Burns is often denigrated by serious critics as "Burnomania. Subsequent critics have responded to Burns out of altered personal and cultural environments. Wordsworth's admiration of Burns's depiction of real life is clearly a selective identification of a quality pertinent to his own poetic ideology. The initial perspective on the songs has changed completely; Burns's bawdry has been seriously analyzed and seen in the context of a long male tradition of scatological verse; his satires have been lauded for their identification of social inequities; his vernacular works have been praised as the very apogee of the Scottish literary tradition.
Critical praise of Burns's songs and vernacular poetry curiously confirms a long Scottish popular tradition of preference for these works: no Burns Supper is complete without the singing of Burns's songs and recitation of such works as "To a Haggis" and "Tam o' Shanter. Since Burns was Scottish, his artistic achievements seem outside the mainstream of eighteenth-century English literature. Nor does he fit neatly into the Romantic period. As a result he is often left out of literary histories and anthologies of those periods, the linguistic qualities of his best work providing an additional barrier.
But language need not be a stumbling block, as translations of his work attest. Burns's roots among the people and his concern with social inequalities have made him particularly popular in Russia and China. While Burns and his literary products are firmly rooted in the societal environment from which he came, both continue to be powerful symbols of humanity's condition; and his utopian cry remains as elusive and appropriate today as when he wrote it:.
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