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Robert Burns Lives!


The Life of Robert Burns
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot

Part II

River Nith behind Ellisland Farm toward Dumfries River Nith from the farm looking the other way

This article will focus on Robert Burns as a young man. It seems strange to use the phrase “early manhood” when Burns died at the all-too-early age of 37. Yet, it is during his early manhood that he did his most prolific work with poetry.

A very important event in the life of Robert Burns happened in the summer of 1781 when he was 22 years old. He became a Freemason in St. David’s Lodge in Tarbolton. This opened doors for Burns, putting him in contact with men above his station in life. It paved the way for an easier entrance into Edinburgh literary circles where he was lionized on his first trip to the city but shunned on his second one.

In my opinion, if there is a key to understanding Burns, it is that one must recognize the complex and somewhat contradictory nature of the man. In short, he was a paradoxical man who envied those above him and was jealous of people who were richer than he. He lashed out at patronizing superiors who discriminated against the common man. If you incurred the wrath of his satire, wit or sarcasm, you could be red-faced for days. This most productive period of Burns, as far as his poetry is concerned, began in the summer of 1784 and concluded in the autumn of 1786. Little did he know he was moving from a well-known neighborhood poet to one of international stature.

During this period Burns exhibited his ability to really express his feelings on paper. His poetry, filled with emotion, magically jumped off his pen. He moved beyond the conventional ways of poetry and the use of rhyming clichés. He spoke from his heart, guided by his Muse. Having suffered from poverty and oppression, his poetry spoke of freedom, equality, hypocrisy, humanity, tyranny, patriotism, love and the rights of man. He led with his heart when it might have been better, in some instances, for him to lead with his head. He was straightforward. He has been described as “a man speaking to men”. He said it best when he described poetry as “natural ideas expressed in melodious words” and, in due time, Burns was quoted by the high and mighty, as well as their servants.

Years later, Sir Walter Scott, who was a best selling author, once wrote, “Long life to thy fame and peace to thy soul, Rob Burns! When I want to express a sentiment which I feel strongly, I find the phrase in Shakespeare - or thee”.

Burns continued to write great poetry at a spectacular rate while carrying on complex love affairs with several women, including Jean Armour and Highland Mary. (Clarinda came along during his Edinburgh days.) Ironically, his greatest work was produced during this time. He was planning to leave Scotland, to flee his future father-in-law, when Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published in Kilmarnock by John Wilson in 1786.

With reviews appearing in the Edinburgh and London newspapers, Burns achieved instant fame. He endured being patronized in Edinburgh by the rich and learned members of the community. Yet, he never met anyone of his stature in Edinburgh or even his equal. As refined as Edinburgh was, there were no giants among the crowd. Scott was a mere lad, and Hume was long gone. It was said that it never dawned on the likes of Professor Dugal Steward, the good Reverend Dr. Hugh Blair, or publisher and author Henry Mackenzie that they were patronizing a man of superior talent and ability from their own second-rate capacity. Robert T. Fitzhugh once said, “Indeed, it never occurred to these men and their friends that their chief claim to fame would be their association with Burns.” A year later Burns would be world famous.

It was in Edinburgh that Burns published an enlarged edition of his book, which actually consisted of two printings with the same content. It brought about the famous misprints in the Address to a Haggis of “stinking” for “skinking” (watery) and “Boxburgh” for “Roxburgh”, among the subscribers.

Soon his poems were being published in Belfast, Dublin, Philadelphia and New York. Regretfully, due to poor copyright laws, Burns never received a penny from the many pirated editions. It is said that George Washington had a copy of the Philadelphia edition. (Note: Burns wrote a great poem saluting Washington and the Fourth of July.) Now famous and internationally known, the great Bard was never to publish a new volume of poetry. With the exception of Tam O’ Shanter, probably his most famous poem, his career as a major poet was over.

This farmer turned poet was about to make another big change in his life. He was to become an exciseman, a hated taxman, and leave farming for good. His duties would take him 200 miles a week on horseback. He would leave the country life for the city life and settle down in Dumfries. He would continue writing but his emphasis was on Scottish songs. He had married Jean Armour, his faithful and undemanding wife, who once said, “Our Robbie should have had two wives.” Say what you want about Jean Armour, she raised her own children, as well as some of Burns’ children by other women.

In Part III of this series, we will look at the last years of his life, dedicated to writing and editing Scottish songs, or Airs as they were called in Scotland. The series will then conclude with Part IV entitled “Looking Back at Robert Burns”. (FRS: 3/23/05)

Statue of Burns in Ayr Frank Shaw and Les Byers, curator of Ellisland Farm, is attached showing the sword used by Burns during his time as an exciseman.