Leishman, J. B. The Metaphysical Poets: Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Traherne. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934.
BURNS, ROBERT (1759-1796) Robert Burns was born in the southwestern town of Alloway, Scotland, to a poor tenant farmer. The eldest of seven children, he benefited from a spotty education in various nearby schools as well as by a tutor his father insisted on employing, regardless of the expense. Not a particularly impressive student, Burns matured quickly, assuming responsibility on Mt. Oliphant, the family's rented farm, from a young age. He also gained a reputation for drink and celebration and had a number of relationships with various women throughout his life, fathering at least three children with women other than his wife.
After his father's death in 1784, Burns joined his brother Gilbert in renting another farm, but that venture did not prove successful. He began a sexual affair with Jean Armour, who became pregnant. Although she possessed a marriage agreement signed by Burns, it did not meet the conventional requirements for marriage, prompting her father to appeal to the local Kirk session for its censure. Burns apparently then balked at the agreement with Jean, confessing to his friend Gavin Hamilton that he wanted to end the relationship, sought his freedom, and might have impregnated another woman, the Mary Campbell who inspired some later poetry. With the failure of his business and the challenges to his marriage to Jean, Burns considered moving to the West Indies and hid from a warrant issued by Jean's father. While in hiding, he learned that Mary had died in childbirth, while Jean had delivered twins, Robert and Jean. Burns had in the meantime published a collection of poetry titled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), and its success spurred a move to Edinburgh. In between flings with other women, he continued to visit Jean, and a second set of twins were born, both of whom died. In a series of events that could form the plot of a melodrama, Burns at last reunited with Jean, who would eventually bear him nine children and inspire Burns to write at least 14 ballads.
Fascinated by Scotland's ballads and their capacity to capture both the native work ethic and the propensity to drink, Burns revised many of the traditional songs and committed them to print. Several became international favorites, including "Auld Lang Syne" and "John Anderson My Jo." Some of the best known, such as "To A Mouse," may be found in his Poems, a publication that assured his popularity. Interested parties from Edinburgh supported repeated editions of the collection, which grew larger with each issue.
While Burns's use of dialect may challenge the untrained eye and ear, it also adds charm and authenticity to a poetry form that grew from an oral tradition. The subject matter and themes of his ballads often mirrored Burns's concerns, as is seen in "Holy Willie's Prayer." The Willie of the title accused Gavin Hamilton in 1785 of stealing from the fund for the poor that he had been appointed to manage. The poem celebrates Hamilton's acquittal, although Burns published it after his friend's death. Burns's lifestyle separated him from the Church of Scotland's Calvinistic beliefs in predestination, which promised Willie salvation. "Song—For A' That and A' That" echoes Burns's disenchantment with the events of the French Revolution, although he still believed in its causes.
Burns's writing success led him again to try to farm, this time selecting Dumfriesshire on property called Ellisland. Although his attempt again failed, he had gained the trust of Jean's family, and the couple participated in a traditional marriage. In 1791 he had to abandon Ellisland, and he supported himself as a tax inspector in Dumfries. By all reports he became bored and listless and died at the age of 38. Jean would outlive him by 38 years.
Burns's popularity remains unequaled by any other Scottish poet. His work has never been out of print, spawning a cottage industry, with many electronic Web sites, as well as printed sources, featuring his work and biography. A full Burns encyclopedia was published in 1959 and is now available online at http:// www.robertburns.org/encyclopedia/index.shtml. This site, sponsored by Scotweb Marketing, Ltd., also links to 558 works by the poet. Burns tours and festivals continue to promote the poetry of this balladeer extraordinaire.
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