”O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n Devotion!”
Robert Burns (1759-1796)
On January 25th, people around the world will celebrate the life of the most beloved Scottish poet, Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns. Burns’ Night will see many people reciting Robert Burns’ poems, whilst dancing traditional Scottish dances accompanied by a portion of haggis, neeps (turnip), tatties (potato) and whiskey. These traditions began in 1801, five years after Burns’ death, when a group of the poet’s friends decided to commemorate him by hosting a dinner.
Who was Robert Burns?
The first of seven children born to William and Agnes Burness, Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Alloway, Scotland. Robert Burns signed his works as Robert Burness until March 1786, after which he chose the spelling Burns, a very common name in Ayrshire. The surnames Burn, Burns, Burnes, and Burness all derive from the word “burn”, which is a small stream. This originated from an ancestor who lived beside a burn.
His father was a tenant farmer who educated his children at home. In 1784, after his father’s death, Burns and his brother Gilbert tried to continue the work at the farm. However, this proved to be hard work and barely suited the aspirations of the upcoming poet. Burns’ time working on the farm affected him later in life, contributing to his poor health. He married very young, to Jean Armour with whom he had nine children. Burns also had another four children with four women outside his marriage. He died at the age of 37 as a result of heart problems. Although leaving life before possibly achieving his full potential, his poems and songs form a strong and unique legacy, and are a source of inspiration for many singers and writers.
Robert Burns was most influenced and inspired by Robert Fergusson. After reading his poems, Robert Burns thought about himself as his successor, “carrying forward and widening the range of vernacular Scots poetry”, according to D.M. Low in Robert Burns (1986).
What makes us love Robert Burns’ poems?
In all his poems and songs, Robert Burns talks about human nature in a way that almost anybody from anywhere can identify with. “[Burns’ appeal] is that he is us. Everyman. With all our faults and virtues. You can open his works at any page and find something about yourself”. George Bernard Shaw described Burns as someone who “had the Scottish gift for making his vices more amiable than other people’s virtues.”
He was the people’s poet. His unique style communicated universal truths and principles. He gave hope to the average human being, with the message that life is worth living despite all its ups and downs. He used the language people were using in their day-to-day exchanges.
His poems reveal a natural and honest compassion for all living creatures. The poem, “To a Mouse” is perhaps the best example of this deep commitment to observing the creatures he encountered. Much of his inspiration came as a result of observation of both humans and animals.. The poem “A Winter Night” reveals to its readers Robert Burns’ capacity for empathy and sensitivity, and his ability to be touched by existence itself. We enjoy Burns’ poems for the freedom they express, and for bringing to the surface the many reasons we have in life to laugh.
Another great source of inspiration for Burns was the Great French Revolution. Burns completely supported the idea of the Revolution, and the poem “The Tree of Liberty” reflects this better than any other, revealing his democratic and revolutionary spirit. He gave life to ideas and aspirations of a better human existence. He knew how to connect with the ordinary man: “It’s coming yet for a’ that, that man to man the whole world o’er / Shall brothers be for a’ that.”
Burns mixed Scottish and English in his writings, thus making them accessible to both Scottish and English readers. This was something that had never been done before, and showed Burns’ commitment to the Scottish language. Through Robert Burns’ poems and songs, the Scottish language was kept alive. Herein lies the real beauty of Burns’ legacy: “his sophisticated code-switching between Scots and English” (Jennifer R. McDermott, 2007) and his skillful way of touching every human being by talking about humanity, hope and freedom.
Burns’ Scottish Identity
So, whether you decide to celebrate Burns’ night or not, it is valuable to remember his legacy. Burns expressed his Scottish identity very clearly, and he became an ambassador of Scottish culture worldwide by reaching other parts of the world in a way that no other Scottish poet ever did before him, or indeed has done ever since.
Written by Sorina Oprea and edited by Jennifer McElroy, Both Psychology Assistants at The Green Rooms