Robert Burns (January 25, 1759-July 21, 1796) is the national poet of Scotland. Since they were first published, his poetry and songs have never been out of fashion. Translations have made him a classic in other languages. In households where books have been few, an edition of Burns’s poetry has often stood on a shelf with the Bible. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns.” With their writing Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott created an enduring Scottish identity at a time when the Scots might have been entirely absorbed into a general British culture. In particular, Burns preserved the Scots tongue in literary form. The most loved figure in Scottish history and literature, his birthday, January 25, is the annual occasion of “Burns Night” festivities. He is celebrated by the Unitarians of Scotland as a religious forbear.
Robbie was born in a thatched cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire. His father, William Burnes, was a moderately well-educated farmer who did some of the teaching of his children and occasionally provided private tutors. He wrote his own relatively liberal catechism for his children as an alternative to that of the Westminster Assembly. Robbie did a lot of reading on his own, including works by philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith. He worked on the family farm until his father’s death in 1784 and continued farming with his brother Gilbert, 1784-86.
As a young man Burns made a study of local religious phenomena and read with interest such liberal theological works as The Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin Proposed to Free and Candid Examination, 1740, by the English proto-Unitarian John Taylor. He admired two Ayrshire clergymen, William McGill and William Dalrymple, who held Arian views (“preaching that three’s ane and twa,” as Burns put it) and had connections with the English Unitarians Joseph Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey. Burns, known as “Rab the Ranter,” inflicted his heretical religious views on his neighbours, some of whom shunned him as a result.
In 1780 Burns founded a debating society, the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club. Among the subjects discussed were “Whether do we derive more happiness from Love or Friendship?” and “Whether is the savage man or the peasant of a civilised country in the most happy situation?” According to the constitution, which Burns wrote, “Every man proper for a member of this society, must have a frank, honest, open heart; above any thing dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex.”
According to Robert Louis Stevenson, “a leading trait throughout [Burns's] whole career was his desire to be in love.” He was an expert at flirtation, dazzling in conversation, and author of effective love-letters. In Ayrshire he had a rakish reputation, which was enhanced by the notoriety of his religious opinions. However, Burns was never able to progress beyond the romantic stages of courtship. He had many affairs, even after he was married, and not a few illegitimate children, the first of which elicited from him a poem, “The Poet’s Welcome to his Bastart Wean.” He wrote, “Welcome! My bonie, sweet, wee Dochter!/Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for.”
1786 was the most significant year in Burns’s life. He had been unsuccessful as a farmer. His irregular marriage to Jean Armour was legally annulled by her father. Burns felt that Jean, in cooperating with her father, had deserted him. Because Jean was pregnant, Burns had been disciplined by the local Church of Scotland Presbytery. In need of a new beginning, he considered going to the West Indies to work on a sugar plantation. To raise the funds to pay for his passage, Burns published a collection of the poems he had composed over several years. This printing of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, the “Kilmarnock edition,” made him a local celebrity. Moreover, within months of publication distinguished literary figures in Scotland and England had written glowing reviews. Burns dropped his plan for emigration and traveled to Edinburgh. There he was lionized as the “ploughman poet.”
With the exception of the long narrative poem, “Tam O’Shanter,” first published in the Edinburgh Magazine in 1791, much of the poetry for which Burns is famous appeared in the Kilmarnock edition. Many of the poems he added to later editions were works of lesser quality and did not greatly add to his original achievement. “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” the Burns poem most celebrated during the nineteenth century, fixed in verse a style of life fondly remembered but already passing away. His often quoted line, “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men/gang aft a-gley,” is from “To a Mouse.” In this, and other poems such as “The Auld Farmer’s New Year Salutation to His Mare Maggie,” and “To a Louse,” he reflected on the relation between humans and other creatures, domestic and otherwise. By taking the point of view of the insect parasite in “To a Louse,” Burns fashioned a critique of social class:
O was some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It was frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion . . .
In 1787 James Johnson, an Edinburgh engraver and music-seller, hired Burns to collect and arrange old Scottish songs for the Scots Musical Museum. That year Burns began collecting on trips to the Borders and the Highlands. He made himself a student of “ballad simplicity” and developed a theory of matching tunes to texts. Among the most famous of the 368 songs he wrote or adapted are “Auld Lang Syne,” “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose,” “John Anderson My Jo,” “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” and “A Man’s a Man for A’That.” He contributed some of his later songs to George Thomson’s Scottish Airs and Poetry, 1793-1818. Although Thomson commissioned elaborate and effective settings of many of these songs from Haydn and Beethoven, they are best sung in the simple folk style that Burns preferred. His methods prepared the way for later, more disciplined approaches to folk music by such composers as Vaughan Williams and Bartok.
The celebrated lyric “Scots Wha Hae,” set to the tune of an old song, “Hey tutti tatie,” is represented as the battle call of King Robert the Bruce, leading the Scottish troops against the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In 1793, the year of Burns’s composition, he told Thomson he had in mind, not only the mediaeval struggle for freedom, but “some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient.” He was concerned at the time about repressive measures being taken against reformers by those who feared the French Revolution. Among these was the trial of Unitarian minister Thomas Fyshe Palmer for sedition. After only a token show of evidence, Palmer was sentenced to deportation to an Australian penal colony.
In the winter of 1787-88 Burns conducted a largely epistolary romance with the widow Nancy MacLeHose. More conventionally religious than he, she engaged him in religious discussion. She wrote: “I found all my hopes of pardon and acceptance with Heaven upon the merits of Christ’s atonement,-wheras you do upon a good life.” He wrote, “It must be in everyone’s power to embrace [God's] offer of ‘everlasting life’; otherwise He could not, in justice, condemn those who did not.”
MacLeHose was torn between her affection for Burns and her Calvinist conscience. Burns, for his part, was divided between his sophisticated amour for Mrs. MacLeHose and his earthy longing for Jean Armour who that spring bore him a second set of twins. Though both children soon died, Burns was tremendously proud of Jean’s “prolific twin-bearing merit.” He also felt concern for her welfare and guilt for his part in her situation. He married her a second time soon after, this time receiving the blessing of the Armour family and the Scottish Church.
With funds from the second edition of his poetry, Burns rented a farm in Dumfriesshire, but earned nothing from working its exhausted soil. In 1791 Burns moved to the town of Dumfries, where he worked as a tax-collector. He described his life as “grinding the faces of publican and sinner on the merciless wheels of the Excise, making ballads, and then drinking and singing them; and, above all, correcting the press of two different [collections of songs].”
Burns had joined the Freemasons in Tarbolton in 1781. His Masonic connection had helped to pave his way in Edinburgh society when he was promoting himself as a poet. In 1787 he attained the Royal Arch degree. He was an active member for the rest of his life, belonging to lodges in Edinburgh and Dumfries. Among the Freemasons, whose lodges at this period were egalitarian, democratic, and politically liberal, Burns absorbed his profound sense of human dignity and equality. In his “Birthday Ode for George Washington,” who was also a Mason, Burns wrote of “the Royalty of Man.” In the well-known “A Man’s a Man For A’ That” he sang “The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,/Is king o’ men for a’ that.”
In 1788 on his application for a post as an exciseman, to get the job Burns had listed his religious affiliation as Church of Scotland. But he rejected Calvinist theology, piety, and social attitudes. That same year he wrote about religion that “it becomes a man of sense to think for himself.” He thought it would be good to believe in a God of “Infinite Wisdom and Goodness,” but was not certain that he did. He had doubts about Jesus as well. “Jesus Christ, thou amiablest of characters, I trust thou art no Imposter, and that thy revelation of blissful scenes of existence beyond death and the grave, is not one of the many impositions which time after time have been palmed off on a credulous mankind.” A friend of his addressed Burns in a letter as “Christless Bobbie.”
In some of his poems Burns mocked Calvinists, clerical and lay. In “The Ordination” he pictured Auld Licht churchmen driving way the enemies of orthodoxy: learning, common-sense, and morality. In the satirical “Epistle to John Goldie,” he portrays the bigoted and superstitious as sick unto death, with Goldie, a religiously liberal merchant, and John Taylor most responsible for this “black mischief.” “The Holy Fair” is a burlesque based on rural, outdoor communion festivals. Burns’s most famous parody of Calvinism is “Holy Willie’s Prayer”:
O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,
Wha, as it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ ten to hell,
A’ for Thy glory,
And no for onie guid or ill
They’ve done afore Thee!
Burns indicated his own religious views in other poems. He wrote in “The Kirk’s Alarm,” “A heretic blast has been blawn i’ the West,/That what is not Sense must be Nonsense.” In “Epistle to a Young Friend,” he likened the fear of hell to a hangman’s whip “To haud the wretch in order.” Better than to cringe before the prospect of damnation, according to Burns, would be to guide one’s actions by consulting one’s honour. His “Address to the Deil” implies that even Satan has a chance for salvation. “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” contrasts the simple Arian faith of a farmer with the display in church of “Devotion’s every grace, except the heart!” In “The Jolly Beggars” he denounced the organized religion he knew: “Courts for Cowards were erected,/Churches built to please the Priest.” And in “Epistle to Rev. John McMath” he denounced religious hypocrisy, claiming,
But twenty times I rather would be
An atheist clean,
Than under gospel colours hid be
Just for a screen.
Burns could not guess whether the afterlife would be merely “to moulder with the clods of the valley” or to some reward for “having acted an honest part among his fellow creatures.” “The close of life,” he wrote, “to a reasoning eye is ‘dark as was chaos.’”
Throughout his life Burns advocated an earthy, this-worldly religion. He believed passions were a gift of God for human pleasure, and that a religion of love must include sex. He looked askance at theology which he thought a life-denying tool of priestly power. He denied original sin. “I believe in my conscience that the case is just quite contrary,” he wrote to Frances Dunlop in 1788. “We came into this world with a heart and disposition to do good for it, until by dashing a large mixture of base Alloy called Prudence alias Selfishness, the too precious Metal of the Soul is brought down to the blackguard Sterling of ordinary currency.”
Burns never joined a Unitarian Church or any particular religious faction. Of large spirit, he was an eighteenth-century Scottish equivalent of the English Rational Dissenter or a New England Congregationalist Arminian. Like the God of William Channing, Burns’s deity was an “object of our reverential awe and grateful adoration” from whose “divine promise” no one is excluded save by themselves. God is “almighty, and all bounteous” and Jesus Christ, “a great Personage.” Burns believed that in the end it is the quality of our lives which counts. He summed his faith in Jamie Dean’s grace: “Lord, grant that we may lead a gude life; for a gude life makes a gude end; at least it helps weel!”