Robert Burns, “Rabbie Burns,” is Scotland’s most famous poet, a cultural icon whose name is to this day synonymous with Scottish life and the Scots language. Like William Blake, he was an important precursor to the Romantic movement in poetry, and his work was a crucial influence on the early British Romantics, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His life and his poems are celebrated annually even now, more than two centuries later, in ritual Burns Suppers every January.
Burns was born on January 25, 1759, the eldest of seven children of William Burness, a tenant farmer in Alloway (Ayrshire), in the Western lowlands of Scotland. His father was self-educated, and he taught his children at home—Rabbie’s formal education consisted solely of one summer term at a nearby parish school and several stays at an “adventure school” operated by his father’s friend John Murdoch. Most of Rabbie’s youth was spent laboring on his father’s farm(s), a hard life which took its toll on his health and contributed to his early death from heart disease.
Love and Poems:
Burns fell in love with a local lass at the age of 15, and this state of affairs prompted his first attempts at poetry and song. He was something of a ladies’ man, and wrote many poems inspired by the women he was romancing: Nelly, Peggy, Alison, his mother’s servant Elizabeth, Jean Armour, who bore him twins in 1786 and later became his wife, and Mary Campbell, with whom he carried on an affair that ended only with her sudden and unexpected death, also in 1786, after which he returned to live with Jean.
Burns’ Poetic Career:
1786 was a fateful year for Burns: besides the death of Mary and the birth of his first two children by Jean, it was also the publication date of his first collection of poems, assembled at his brother Gilbert’s suggestion: Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, published by a local printer in Kilmarnock. The book was an immediate success, and made Burns famous across Scotland. The next year he was invited to Edinburgh to prepare a revised edition, and during his stay in the capital city, he made connections both literary and romantic that shaped the rest of his life.
In Edinburgh in 1787, Burns met James Johnson, an engraver and music seller who was devoted to preserving traditional Scots songs. Burns contributed many songs to Johnson’s collection, which was published in six volumes of 100 songs each, The Scots Musical Museum, between 1787 and 1803. Besides collecting old songs, Burns wrote new lyrics for a great number of traditional melodies, which is how he came to be known as the author of such familiar oldies as “Auld Lang Syne” and “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose.”
After returning from Edinburgh to Ayrshire in 1788, Burns married Jean Armour and began again as a tenant farmer, but he also trained to work in customs and excise as an alternative, because he had never been very successful as a farmer. In 1789 he began to work as a taxman for the British government, and he gave up the farm and moved to Dumfriesshire in 1791. His health continued to deteriorate, he drank a great deal and was often depressed, and in 1796 his heart condition killed him at the young age of 37.