The English Poetry of Robert Burns
(1759 - 1796)
By Frank R. Shaw, Atlanta, GA, USA, email:
Q: The word “English” in your book
title intrigues me as I’m sure it will others who study Burns. What made you
decide to publish this wee book of his poems that were entirely in English?
A: My attention was drawn specifically
to Burns’ English poetry by a radio programme, not a Scottish programme. The
broadcast was to the whole of the U.K. It was January and close to the
poet’s anniversary. The English presenter mentioned this and spoke very
pleasingly about our Bard. “But,” he said, “what a pity we can’t easily
understand his poetry as he wrote it all in the Scots dialect.” This made me
prick up my ears because I knew that there were some poems in
English. I decided to investigate, and to my surprise, I found over 100
poems written entirely in English. Then I decided to make a selection of
these gems and put them into a little gift book. This is the first ever
compilation of his English work.
Q: The Kilmarnock edition of Burns’
poetry in 1786 made him an instant celebrity in his homeland. The title is
Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Why do you think he
insisted on writing his poetry for the book in the Scottish dialect rather
than in English alone?
A: Robert Burns had a fierce love of
Scotland and the Scottish tongue. It was the language that he spoke, and so
the poems came naturally in that dialect.
Q: Many readers will be surprised to
learn that Burns wrote over 100 poems in English. Having insisted on writing
in the Scottish dialect while being encouraged by others to leave that
language behind (Dr. Moore comes to mind) and write in English, why do you
then think Burns eventually wrote so many poems in English?
A: I think people encouraged him to
write some poems in English because they recognized the genius of the man
and wanted that genius to be appreciated by non-Scots. “The Lounger”
magazine, the 18th century weekly, wrote in Burns’ own lifetime,
“In English (his poetry) cannot be read at all without much constant
reference to a glossary, as nearly to destroy that pleasure.” Burns was not
too happy about being asked to write in English. I truly think that when he
did write in English, it just came out that way. I don’t think that when
taking up his quill he thought, “I’ll do this one in English”. Some of his
earliest poems are in English, long before he visited Edinburgh where he was
advised to do this.
Q: Even after studying Burns for a few
years now, I personally keep The Concise Scots
Dictionary close at hand while reading or writing articles on him. I
noticed that you printed these poems in English “exactly as he wrote them”
and that “no verses have been omitted”. Do you feel more people will read
the English poems rather than those he wrote in the Scottish dialect, of
which he was so passionate? If so, please explain.
A: I hope that this little book will
make available to a whole new readership the beauty and wisdom of Burns’
words. There will always be a number of non-Scots people who enjoy
reading poetry but who could not be bothered looking up the meaning of every
other Scot word. This is bound to delay the flow of the poetry. Perhaps
having read the English poems, they may then be enticed to try the Scottish
Q: Is there anything you wish you had
done differently in publishing your book on Burns? Will future editions
contain more English poems?
A: I have published this book myself. I
did try a few publishers but none accepted. As I had a gut feeling that this
book would sell, I took the gamble (not really like me!) and had it printed
myself. I have not thought yet of doing a second book with different English
poems. I need to sell more of these first. One the whole, I’m quite pleased
with how it has turned out. People have been very complimentary about it.
Q: I really appreciate your categorizing
the poems in your book by topics such as nature, women and love, advice,
religious nature, autobiographical, and death. Why did you specifically
select these topics?
A: The selection gives a good
cross-section of the poet’s work and it makes the sock “tidy”. I chose this
way rather than listing the poems alphabetically. I do wish there could have
been a category for “humorous poems”. I was disappointed that there are no
English poems showcasing this side of Burns. As you know, many of his
Scottish poems display his brilliant humour, fun and mischief. There is only
one short stanza - one of his mock epitaphs which he wrote about people who
were still alive! – “Epitaph for Mr. Walter Riddell”. However, “The Belles
of Mauchline” has a gentle humour to it.
Q: You have selected more poems about
“Women/Love” and “Death” than other topics. In fact, these poems make up
almost one-third of your book. Why is this, and I must ask humorously, of
course, if there is a correlation between the two topics?
A: As you know, Burns was a legendary
lover. A very large number of his poems are about love and, therefore, that
is why there is a higher ratio of poems in that category in the book.
Hopefully there is not a correlation between women/love and death! Like many
artistic people, Burns fell victim to some very gloomy moods. He had a deep
religious connection - quite unconnected to the kirk. He wrote to Mrs.
Dunlop, “A mathematician without religion is a probable character; an
irreligious poet is a monster”. He brooded terribly at times and wrote a lot
about death. He also had a peculiar preoccupation with winter - Scottish
winters, of course - and wrote a great deal about that, usually during his
gloomy moods. No English work on this subject, however.
Q: How is your book selling and how can
readers buy a copy, perhaps by email? I understand a lady from Idaho bought
24 copies while visiting Scotland recently? Please give us an address, as
well as the cost for the book plus shipping to America.
A: I’m glad to say it is selling well.
The first thousand have gone, and I’ve just had another thousand printed. It
is rather costly to do this, and so I just
included the poems I liked best. Also I
wanted to keep the retail price down. At 3.50 pounds, it is an attractive
price and makes a nice little gift or keepsake for tourists to take home. It
sells well at National Trust properties, garden centers and, of course, at
the Burns venues. Yes, a lady from Idaho bought 24 copies via her visit to
Glamis Castle gift shop. Also, 40 have gone to Russia, given as gifts to
Russian visitors on a trip to the Burns country from St. Petersburg. The
overseas convener of the Burns Federation wanted them to give one to each of
Books can be bought directly from me at my home address (Thornton House, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire AB51 0JX, Scotland). No email just yet, but soon!
Each book costs 3.50 pounds sterling. The 24
sent to Idaho cost 9 pounds by sea or 18 pounds by air. One book goes
airmail at 2 pounds. All these prices include packaging.
Q: Ken Simpson, one of the foremost
Burns scholars in the world, referred you to me. I now see that you are
listed as a speaker at his 2007 annual conference in Glasgow. How do you
know Ken Simpson?
A: I have only spoken so far to Ken
Simpson on the telephone. I look forward to meeting him at the January
conference. West Kilbride in Ayrshire, where he lives, is very near Largs in
Ayrshire where I was brought up. My late father was mayor of Largs. I was
born in Ayr - proud to share my place of birth with Robert Burns! Dad was a
keen Burnsian, so I was brought up with a love of Burns’ work. I plan to
move back to Largs in a few years time.
Q: Will there be another book coming
from your pen sometime in the future? If so, do you care to comment on its
A: Not planned at the moment. All my
life I worked in television, the last 15 years as a producer. I compiled a
7-part mini-series “A Letter from Robert Burns” which was transmitted each
evening of Burns week. This was a long time ago. His letters - now there’s
another whole subject - and all in English. But lots have been done about
Q: In a recent letter to me, you stated
you had “advanced from quill to fountain pen”. Do you think you will
advance from pen to computer and email?
A: I have just acquired a computer. So
the answer is a definite “yes”. I’m so sorry that my not being on email yet
has caused so much trouble to your good and patient self.
Q: Thank you for your promptness and
courtesies in both our phone conversations and written communications. Is
there a last word that you would like to share with our readers?
A: Just to give them my good wishes. The
fact that they are reading this article means we have all something in
common – the love of Robert Burns’ work. I hope that my little book will add
to this readership and spread appreciation of his words. Hidden away in a
corner of the treasure chest of his precious Scottish poems lies a
jewel box containing the gems he wrote in English. I have opened this box
and by so doing shown what a craftsman Burns was with the English language
as well as with the Scots.