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Robert Burns Biography | Poet

Photo of Robert Burns

Robert ('Rabbie') Burns was born into humble means. His parents were tenant farmers in the Ayr region, yet managed to scrimp and save enough spare money to pay for Burns to attend school and achieve a modest education. Burns threw himself into his books and became a profligate reader, enchanted by word and prose to such a degree that he went on to become one of the most popular poets not just of his generation but of his century and long after. Despite his young death (37) he is still commended and appreciated to this day, so much so that Scotland - and Scots around the world - celebrate 'Burns' night on the 25th January every year to commemorate his birth.

Robert Burns' Major Achievements

Following his move from Ayrshire to Edinburgh Burns swiftly became a major player in Scottish cultural life. The trend at the time was leaning towards a form of romantic idealism; that of the glens, pastures and romance that masked the general dark humor that under-lied most of his poetry. Burns is regarded as one of the pioneers of Romanticism and was - remarkable for the time - swiftly accepted into the higher ranks of the Scottish class, enabling his work to be published and printed to an exceptional scale. His ideals were far reaching - broaching subjects such as class, gender, war and nationalism long before their time - that as the centuries have passed makes him one of the most progressive cultural figures in British history.


If Burns hadn't have been provided access to the formative education that his parents sacrificed for, it's most likely he would have followed in their footsteps and lived the hard life of a crofts man. Yet this only tells half the story, because it just so happened that Burns was a literary natural - his thirst for knowledge and comprehension was fueled by his inherent desire to read and learn. It's also worthwhile noting that the education Burns received was largely pastoral and church based, and that his father - who himself was self taught - played a crucial role in home-schooling and educating his eldest son.

The Works Of Robert Burns

Even though the term has yet to be invented, Burns was and will forever be remembered as a Romantic poet. This needn't be his love for Mary Campbell ("The Highland Lassie O", "Highland Mary", and "To Mary in Heaven") necessarily, more-so his legacy is of quiet observation of the smaller matters of life that seemingly passed by unnoticed by his contemporaries. Much of such work was collated into a title named 'Poems, Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect' that included "The Twa Dogs", "Address to the Deil", "Halloween", "The Cotter's Saturday Night", "To a Mouse" and an "Epitaph for James Smith" to name a few.

Why Is Burns Significant?

For a man so deemed in 'Scottishness' Burns always thought of himself as a part of the greater world, shown by his unfulfilled desire to relocate to India or Jamaica at various episodes during his life. He had the very rare and completely natural ability to convey the most modest of movements, actions, events or skittishness into a grand drama that gave his poetry a natural sway and mood that celebrated even the darkest aspects of the stories he told.

Remarkable for the time that he published, his works were often skeptical, thoughtful and overtly political regarding issues such as nationalism; often with a suggested nuance of liberty at their heart. It's no surprise that his works are nowadays considered as quite genuinely timeless, so much so that he is celebrated across the globe. A considerable achievement for the son of a tenant crofter born two and a half centuries ago. 

Miscellaneous Info

Robert Burns celebrated Scottish poet, born at Alloway, near Ayr, in 1759, son of an honest, intelligent peasant, who tried farming in a small way, but did not prosper; tried farming himself on his father's decease in 1784, but took to rhyming by preference; driven desperate in his circumstances, meditated emigrating to Jamaica, and published a few poems he had composed to raise money for that end; realised a few pounds thereby, and was about to set sail, when friends and admirers rallied round him and persuaded him to stay; he was invited to Edinburgh; his poems were reprinted, and money came in; soon after he married, and took a farm, but failing, accepted the post of exciseman in Dumfries; fell into bad health, and died in 1796, aged 37. "His sun shone as through a tropical tornado, and the pale shadow of death eclipsed it at noon.... To the ill-starred Burns was given the power of making man's life more venerable, but that of wisely guiding his own life was not given.... And that spirit, which might have soared could it but have walked, soon sank to the dust, its glorious faculties trodden under foot in the blossom; and died, we may almost say, without ever having lived." See Carlyle's "Miscellanies" for by far the justest and wisest estimate of both the man and the poet that has yet by any one been said or sung. He is at his best in his "Songs," he says, which he thinks "by far the best that Britain has yet produced.... In them," he adds, "he has found a tune and words for every mood of man's heart; in hut and hall, as the heart unfolds itself in many-coloured joy and woe of existence, the name, the voice of that joy and that woe, is the name and voice which Burns has given them."

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Book: Reflection on the Important Things