Robert Burns 1759–96

  • Ian McGowan
Part of the St. Martin’s Anthologies of English Literature book series (AEL)


The son of a small farmer from Ayrshire, Burns spent much of his life trying to solve his financial problems by working the land, finally becoming an excise officer in 1789. As a youth, he was well aware of classic English poetry as well as the Scottish vernacular tradition of Ramsay and Fergusson, and in his own work the extent of dialect usage varies greatly. His first collection of Poems, which appeared at Kilmarnock in 1786, led to his Konisation by intellectual Edinburgh society, which chose to regard him inaccurately as a ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’. (His unorthodox way of life and entanglements with women long distorted views of his career as a whole.) Burns’s interest in the native tradition led him to collect and write many poems for The Scots Musical Museum, such as ‘O my luve’s like a red, red rose’. An early supporter of the French Revolution, Burns has remained popular for his pleas for human equality and his celebration of humble worth. More solemn works like The Cotter’s Saturday Night are complemented by comic narrative in Tarn o’Shanter and vigorous satire of complacency in ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’.


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Nature America Inc. 1989

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  • Ian McGowan

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