Robert Burns

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Burns, Robert,

1759–96, Scottish poet.


The son of a hard-working and intelligent farmer, Burns was the oldest of seven children, all of whom had to help in the work on the farm. Although always hard pressed financially, the elder Burns, until his death in 1784, encouraged his sons with their education. As a result, Burns as a boy not only read the Scottish poetry of Ramsay and the collections compiled by Hailes and Herd, but also the works of Pope, Locke, and Shakespeare. By 1781, Burns had tried his hand at several agricultural jobs without success. Although he had begun writing, and his poems were circulated widely in manuscript, none were published until 1786. At this time he had already begun a life of dissipation, and he was not only discouraged but poor and was involved simultaneously with several women.

Burns decided to marry Mary Campbell and migrate to Jamaica. To help finance the journey, he published at Kilmarnock Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), which was an immediate success. Mary Campbell died before she and Burns could marry, and Burns changed his mind about migration. He toured the Highlands, brought out a second edition of his poems at Edinburgh in 1787, and for two winters was socially prominent in the Scottish city. In 1788 he married Jean Armour, who had borne him four children, and retired to a farm at Ellisland. By 1791 Burns had failed as a farmer, and he moved to nearby Dumfries, where he held a position as an exciseman. He died at 37 after a severe attack of rheumatic fever.


Burns's art is at its best in songs such as "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton," "My Heart's in the Highlands," and "John Anderson My Jo." Two collections contain 268 of his songs—George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (6 vol., 1793–1811) and James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum (5 vol., 1787–1803). Some of these, such as "Auld Lang Syne" and "Comin' thro' the Rye," are among the most familiar and best-loved poems in the English language. But his talent was not confined to song; two descriptive pieces, "Tam o' Shanter" and "The Jolly Beggars," are among his masterpieces.

Burns had a fine sense of humor, which was reflected in his satirical, descriptive, and playful verse. His great popularity with the Scots lies in his ability to depict with loving accuracy the life of his fellow rural Scots, as he did in "The Cotter's Saturday Night." His use of dialect brought a stimulating, much-needed freshness and raciness into English poetry, but Burns's greatness extends beyond the limits of dialect. His poems are written about Scots, but, in tune with the rising humanitarianism of his day, they apply to a multitude of universal problems.


See his poems (ed. by J. L. Robertson, 1953); letters (ed. by D. Ferguson and G. Ross Roy, 2 vol., 1985); biographies by M. Lindsay (2d ed. 1968), R. T. Fitzhugh (1970), and R. Crawford (2008); studies by D. Daiches (1978), H. Hecht (1985), and C. McGuirk (1985).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Burns, Robert


Born Jan. 25, 1759, in the village of Alloway, near the town of Ayr, Scotland; died July 21, 1796, in Dumfries. Scottish poet.

Burns was born into a poor peasant family. All his life he struggled with extreme poverty. He began to write poetry at the age of 15. Burns combined his poetic work with work on the farm, and later with his duties as an excise official (from 1789). The satirical poems “The Twa Herds” (1784) and “Holy Willie’s Prayer” (1785) were widely circulated in manuscript and strengthened Burns’ reputation as a freethinker. His first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786; 2nd ed., 1787; 3rd ed., in 2 vols., 1793), immediately brought widespread fame to the poet. Burns prepared Scottish songs for the Edinburgh publication The Scots Musical Museum (published by J. Johnson) and the Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (published by G. Thomson).

Burns welcomed the Great French Revolution (the poem “The Tree of Liberty” and others) as well as the upsurge in the revolutionary democratic movement in Scotland and England. On the basis of folklore and old Scottish literature (A. Ramsay and R. Fergusson), Burns, who had assimilated the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, created an original form of poetry that was modern in spirit and content. Burns’ work (“Is There for Honest Poverty” and others) asserted the personal worth of man, which the poet placed above titles and wealth. His poems in praise of labor, creativity, merriment, liberty, and unselfish, self-sacrificing love and friendship coexist with satire; humor, tenderness, and heartiness are intermixed with irony and sarcasm in his poetry. Burns’ poems are characterized by simplicity of expression, an emotional quality, and an inner dramatic quality that is often shown in the composition of the poem (The Jolly Beggars and others).

Many songs by Burns have been set to music and are still performed. Burns’ poems have been translated into many of the world’s languages. In Russia during the 19th century they were translated by 1.1. Kozlov and M. L. Mikhailov; in the USSR, by E. G. Bagritskii, T. L. Shchepkina-Kupernik, and others. The translations by S. Ia. Marshak are especially popular.


Poems and Songs. Edited by J. Barke. London-Glasgow, 1955.
The Letters, vols. 1–2. Edited by J. de Lancey Ferguson. Oxford, 1931.
In Russian translation:
Robert Berns ν perevodakh S. Marshaka: Izbrannoe, books 1–2. Moscow, 1963.


Istoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 1, issue 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1945.
Orlov, S. A. “Berns ν russkikh perevodakh.” Uch. zap. Leningradskogo pedagogicheskogo in-ta im. A. I. Gertsena, 1939, vol. 26.
Elistratova, A. R. Berns. Moscow, 1957.
Rait-Kovaleva, R. Robert Berns, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1965.
Venok Robertu Bernsu [Sb. st.]. Moscow, 1964.
Daiches, D. Robert Burns. London, 1966.
Lindsay, M. The Burns Encyclopaedia. London, 1959.
Catalogue of Robert Burns: Collection in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow. Glasgow, 1959.
Cuthbertson, J. Complete Glossary to the Poetry and Prose of Robert Burns. New York-London, [1967].
Egerer, J. W. A Bibliography of R. Burns. Carbondale (III.), [1965].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Burns, Robert A., Roman Catholicism After Vatican II.
Coventry squad: Robert Jones, John Madley, Richard Geer-Evans, Lee Gordon, Adam Rice, Qasim Mukhtar, Tom Lawrence, Ashley Waite, Charlie Authwick, Tom Burns, Robert Wood, Philip Cones, Jenny Willis, Sam Cooper.
Keith Blenkinsop and Lindsay Harkins were the ring-leaders while Andrew Burns, Robert Dalrymple and James Elvin acted as couriers.