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Robert Burns: Biography, Facts & Poetry

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might think life on the farm will get you nowhere, but have you ever thought of writing about those experiences? Robert Burns certainly did and it's made him one of the most beloved Scottish poets of all time! Learn more about him and his work in this lesson.

Scotland's Farmer-Poet: A Brief Biography of Robert Burns

If you've ever lived on a farm, you know there's a lot to keep you busy. This was, of course, especially true for pre-industrialized farms like the one Robert Burns grew up on. Born on 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, Robert was the first of seven children born to his parents, William and Agnes, who were subsistence farmers with no money to spend on anything, much less education. Aside from one year of formal mathematics education, Robert was primarily homeschooled, though he did attend an 'adventure' school set up by his father and some neighbors between 1765 and 1768. Nevertheless, this lack of formal scholastic training never stopped young Robert from his love and creation of poetry.

Robert Burns (1759-1796), farmer turned National Bard of Scotland
Portrait of Robert Burns

After William died in 1784, Robert took over the family farm. Dividing his time between writing and working the soil, Burns filled his works with his everyday experiences as a farmer-poet, which might include anything from the rigors of farm life to drinking and carousing. In addition to these and other rural themes, much of Robert's poetry also preserved and celebrated his native tongue. Many of Burns' works place him in the tradition of the makars (Scots dialect: 'maker,' 'doer'), or someone who writes poetry in the Scots dialect, especially in the poetic traditions of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Toward the end of his life, Burns became increasingly interested in preserving Scottish literary heritage, which he perceived as dying under the growing English influence at the time. Having begun to work as an excise tax collector in 1789, Robert had given up farming entirely for this position in Dumfries by 1791. This allowed him much more time to travel and collect something else: old songs, stories, and poems that he helped James Johnson gather into The Scots Musical Museum, a compendium of traditional Scottish verse published in six volumes between 1787 and 1803.

Robert would never get to see those final volumes in print, however. At the age of only 37, Robert Burns died in Dumfries, Scotland on 21 July 1796 from heart disease. Despite dying so young, though, Burns was able to produce an impressive body of works that has made him one of the most celebrated Scottish poets to this day. Keep reading to learn more about Burns, as well as about some of his most iconic pieces!

Fun Facts about Robert Burns

Of course, the life of a subsistence farmer wouldn't afford the poet much capital for publishing and other expenses in the literary world. So, Burns had to turn to readers for help with his first publication, put out in 1786. His collection Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was actually paid for by selling subscriptions to the work in advance.

With his farm and literary career, it's a wonder he had time for a family at all, but Robert Burns was a promiscuous man who always made time for rabblerousing. In his short life, Burns reportedly fathered over ten children by approximately three different women! By 1788, however, he'd settled down quite a bit by marrying Jean Armour, the mother of nine of his kids.

Burns' numerous scandals and indiscretions led to official censure from the Presbyterian Kirk (Church) of Scotland. Nevertheless, the Church's scolding and poor opinion of Burns seems to have had little effect on his long-term popularity or the longevity of his work. Even almost 250 years later, Burns is still considered the National Bard of Scotland.

Poetry by Burns

  • 'Auld Lang Syne'

By far one of Burns' most popular and enduring works, you've probably heard it sung every New Year's Eve. A lot's changed, though, with the tune and interpretation of this classic Scottish song since Robert penned it in 1788. The song's common use at the New Year sees it as a way of saying 'out with the old, and in with the new.' However, when Burns originally adapted 'Auld Lang Syne' (Scots for 'Old Long Since'), it was part of a traditional folk song that celebrated the past with warmth and nostalgia.

  • Tam o' Shanter

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