Robert Burns

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A 'Heavenly taught ploughman' [1] the poet and songwriter Robert Burns was born into a farming family at Alloway in Ayrshire on January the 25th 1759. He died in Dumfries at the early age of 37 yet in his short life he took the literary world by storm establishing himself as a poet of "tenderness, roughness — delicacy, coarseness — sentiment, sensuality — dirt and deity"[2] Burns is a Scottish cultural icon -- considered by some to be the greatest Scot ever -- and his birthday is celebrated each year with supper on Burns Nicht.

John Steinbeck entitled his famous novel, "Of Mice and Men," by taking from a poem "To a Mouse" by Burns, and Bob Dylan considered Burns' work one of his greatest inspirations.

His father, William Burnes, was a poor farmer but he recognized the importance of an education and so with help from friends contracted the services of a local teacher, John Murdoch. At an early age, it was apparent to Murdoch that the young Robert showed potential.[3] Like most farm children though the opportunity for formal education was limited because children had to help on the farm, especially at harvest time. This hard physical work caused Robert Burns to develop the heart condition rheumatic fever which was later to claim his life at an early age.

In 1766 William Burness rented on borrowed money the farm of Mount Oliphant, and in taking his share in the effort to make this undertaking succeed, the future poet seems to have seriously over strained his health. In 1771 Burns went to the neighboring town of Irvine to learn flax-dressing. The only result of this experiment, however, was the formation of an friendship with a dissipated sailor, whom he afterward blamed as the prompter of his first licentious adventures.[4] His father died in 1784, and with his brother Gilbert the poet rented the farm of Mossgiel; but this venture was as unsuccessful as the others. In the meantime he had formed an irregular intimacy with Jean Armour, for which he was censured by the local Kirk (church) session. As a result of his farming misfortunes, and the attempts of his father-in-law to overthrow his irregular marriage with Jean, he decided to emigrate; and in order to pay for the passage he published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock, 1786), a volume of the poems which he had been composing from time to time for some years. This volume was hugely successful, so that, instead of sailing for the West Indies, he went up to Edinburgh, and during that winter he was the chief literary celebrity of the season, the toast of the Scottish Enlightenment. An enlarged edition of his poems was published there in 1787, and the money derived from this enabled him to help his brother, and to buy the farm of Ellisland in Dumfriesshire.

Having now regularly married Jean, he brought her to Ellisland, and once more tried farming for three years. Continued ill-fortune, however, led him, in 1791, to abandon Ellisland, and he moved to Dumfries, where he had obtained a position as a tax collector. But he was now thoroughly despondent; his work had become mere drudgery; his tendency to take his relaxation in debauchery increased the weakness of a constitution early undermined; and he died at Dumfries on July the 21st, 1796

Although an able poet in standard English his best work was in his native Scots.[5] Poems like "The Twa Dogs" and "The Cotter's Saturday Night," vividly describe the harshness of 18th century Scots rural life but he could also write the most cutting social critique such as in "Holy Willie's Prayer," and "Address to the Unco Guid," whilst "To a Mouse" showed he was capable of great tenderness and fellow feeling. He is considered a pioneer of the Romantic movement and was a great influence on William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.[6]

"To a Mouse"

One of Burns' most famous stanzas is from his poem "To a Mouse" (the second-to-last stanza):

“The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley.
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!


  1. The History Today Who's Who,p 122
  2. Lord Byron
  3. Scotland, William Ferguson,p220
  4. Scotland, William Ferguson,p221
  5. Robert Burns, Selected Poems, C. McGuirk, p9
  6. Robert Burns, Selected Poems, C. McGuirk, p14