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Robert Burns Biography

The biography of Robert Burns. This page has biographical information on Robert Burns, one of the best poets of all time. This PoetrySoup page also provides access to the poet's poems, best poetry, quotes, and video biographies...if available.

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Robert Burns Biography | Poems (579)
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A poet and songwriter widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.. Scottish poet and a lyricist


Robert Burns (January 25, 1759 – July 21, 1796) was a poet and songwriter. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English and in a "light" Scots dialect which would have been accessible to a wider audience than simply Scottish people. At various times in his career, he wrote in English, and in these pieces, his political or civil commentary is often at its most blunt.

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became an important source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. A cultural icon in Scotland and among Scots who have relocated to other parts of the world (the Scottish diaspora), his celebration became almost a national charismatic cult during periods of the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature.

Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay (New Year), and Scots Wha Hae served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well known today across the world include A Red, Red Rose, A Man's A Man for A' That, To a Louse, and To a Mouse.

Burns' Night, effectively a second national day, is celebrated on 25 January with Burns' Suppers around the world, and is still more widely observed than the official national day, Saint Andrew's Day, or the new North American celebration Tartan Day.

Burns' Works and Influence

Burns' direct influences in the use of Scots in poetry were Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) and Robert Fergusson. Burns' poetry also drew upon a substantial familiarity and knowledge of Classical, Biblical, and English literature, as well as the Scottish Makar tradition. Burns was skilled in writing not only in the Scots language but also in the Scottish English dialect of the English language. Some of his works, such as Love and Liberty (also known as The Jolly Beggars), are written in both Scots and English for various effects.

Burns' themes included republicanism (he lived during the French Revolutionary period) and Radicalism which he expressed covertly in Scots Wha Hae, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, commentary on the Scottish Kirk of his time, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality, and the beneficial aspects of popular socialising (carousing, Scotch whisky, folk songs, and so forth). Burns and his works were a source of inspiration to the pioneers of liberalism, socialism and the campaign for Scottish self-government, and he is still widely respected by political activists today, ironically even by conservatives and establishment figures because after his death Burns became drawn into the very fabric of Scotland's national identity. It is this, perhaps unique, ability to appeal to all strands of political opinion in the country that have led him to be widely acclaimed as the national poet.

Burns' views on these themes in many ways parallel those of William Blake, but it is believed that, although contemporaries, they were unaware of each other. Burns' works are less overtly mystical.

Burns is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a "heaven-taught ploughman." Burns would influence later Scottish writers, especially Hugh MacDiarmid who fought to dismantle the sentimental Burns cult that had dominated Scottish literature in MacDiarmid's opinion.

Burns also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not Burns'), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns' most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, Auld Lang Syne is set to the traditional tune Can Ye Labour Lea while A Red, Red Rose is set to the tune of Major Graham.

The genius of Burns is marked by spontaneity, directness, and sincerity, and his variety is marvellous, ranging from the tender intensity of some of his lyrics through the rollicking humour and blazing wit of Tam o' Shanter to the blistering satire of Holy Willie's Prayer and The Holy Fair. His life is a tragedy, and his character full of flaws. But he fought at tremendous odds, and as Thomas Carlyle in his great Essay says, "Granted the ship comes into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged, the pilot is blameworthy ... but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs."

See Cutty-sark for the popularity of the phrase "Weel done, Cutty-sark", a line from "Tam O' Shanter".

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