scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh/Bridgeman Art Library

Robert Burns, 1787; portrait by Alexander Nasmyth

Robert Burns is different from the other great European poets both in achievement and in reputation. If you ask a group of academic friends to list the great poets of the last two or three hundred years, it is quite likely that his name will not come up at all. Should you draw attention to his omission, you may well meet with some resistance: “Burns? Oh yes, of course. But…” What that “But” implies is that Burns is not so much a poet as a writer of popular songs, some of them embarrassingly sentimental, and all of them lacking the stringency and intricacy of serious poetry. Besides, your friends may urge, he is less a poet than a Scottish national icon, even, perhaps, a Scottish tribal god. He is hallowed, as some other gods are, in an annual midwinter ceremony on his birthday, January 25, with the equivalent of the Roman Saturnalia, when haggis is consumed, Scotch whisky drunk, and bagpipes piped, in an orgy of assertive nationalism that has nothing remotely to do with literature.

It is precisely academic disdain of this sort that Robert Crawford’s searching and sensitive biography sets out to combat. Crawford is an academic himself, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, as well as a poet, and perhaps that is why disparagement of Burns by academics worries him so much. It is not, one imagines, a circumstance that the poet’s millions of admirers across the globe lose any sleep over. For Crawford, however, Burns’s gradual disappearance from “the research culture of modern academia” is a serious concern, and this biography seeks to show why his poetry is worth literary examination, as well as how it is illuminated by his life.

Burns was born in Alloway, then a riverside hamlet just inland from Ayr, in 1759, the eldest of what would eventually be seven children. His parents were from very different social strata, and both had a lasting effect on his development. His mother, Agnes, was the daughter of a tenant farmer, and had received almost no education. She could read a little, but not write. However, she had a retentive memory for folk songs, and Burns always remembered her in his childhood singing to him lullabies, love songs, and ballads, all in the Scots tongue. Thanks to her, his imagination was fed by oral culture and folk wisdom and, as importantly, his ear was trained. “Burns did not just make songs,” Crawford comments, “songs made Burns.” It was his mother’s gift. The great literary project of his later life was the creation of an anthology of Scots popular poetry and song, and some of his most famous poems, such as “O my luve’s like a red, red rose” and “John Anderson, my jo’,” reuse and reshape verse from the popular tradition.

His father, Willam Burnes (as he always spelled it), was a man of intelligence, education, and some social standing. He had come to Ayrshire from the north, from the port of Stonehaven near Aberdeen. According to family tradition William’s father, Burns’s paternal grandfather, was a prosperous, able man who had married into the Keith family and worked as a gardener for the Jacobite Earl Marischal Keith at Inverugie Castle. The Jacobites were opponents of the 1707 political union between Scotland and England, and supporters of the House of Stuart. Their cause met with disaster thirteen years before Burns’s birth at the Battle of Culloden, when the army of the Hanoverian English King George II, led by the Duke of Cumberland (“Butcher Cumberland”), massacred Charles Edward Stuart’s army of French mercenaries and Highland Scots. “Bonnie Prince Charlie” fled the field, leaving his men to die, and sailed over the sea to Skye, and from there to France, never to return.

As a child Burns seems to have imbibed from his father a sense that his family’s ruin and poverty were somehow bound up with the defeat at Culloden. Loyalty to the Jacobites and hatred of the Hanoverians became permanent aspects of his poetic imagination. In 1787, on a visit to Stirling, he scratched some verses on an inn window bemoaning “the injur’d STEWART-line” and calling the Hanoverian royals “an idiot race.” On the same occasion he wrote a poetic lament for a Highlander ruined by Culloden. His boyhood heroes were rebels and revolutionaries, notably the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who fought against Roman power, and William Wallace, who battled for Scottish independence from the English in the thirteenth century and was executed by Edward I. One of Burns’s most stirring patriotic songs invokes Wallace as a national figurehead: “Scots, wha hae wi’ [who have with] Wallace bled.”

This sympathy for the oppressed and support for revolution also inspired Burns’s poetic response to the events of his own day. He was, Crawford observes, “the first great Romantic poet to write about America.” His teenage verses relating to the War of Independence reveal a detailed knowledge of its campaigns and sympathy with the insurgents, and his 1794 Ode to Liberty, written for Washington’s birthday, celebrates “a People freed” from “a Despot’s nod.” His democratic ardor was to win him the admiration of American poets from Whitman and Poe to Whittier and Frost, and there are, Crawford tells us, more statues of Burns in the United States today than of any American poet. At the time of the French Revolution, the sentiments Burns voiced were so fierce as to shock and alienate some of his friends. His response to the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was that there was nothing to “arrest for a moment, attention” in “the delivering over a perjured Blockhead & an unprincipled Prostitute into the hands of the hangman.”


His antagonism to the wealthy and powerful derived in part from his fanciful allegiance to the defeated Stuarts, inherited from his father, but more realistically it was the bitter fruit of poverty and deprivation. William Burnes’s attempt to start a market gardening business failed, and he was forced to become a tenant farmer. Rents were ruinous and landlords unyielding. William’s first farm was at Mount Oliphant near Alloway. Later he rented one near Tarbolton, and when he died Burns and his brother Gilbert rented Mossgiel, a farm near Mauchline. None of the farms prospered. From the age of ten Burns was doomed to labor six days a week at menial, exhausting, and dispiriting agricultural tasks, to help keep the family from destitution. He was aware that young men far less talented than himself could start prosperous careers simply because they came from moneyed families, whereas he was deprived of any aim or path in life. He felt, he said, like the blind Cyclops feeling around the walls of his cave.

The cumulative force of these experiences brought on some kind of mental or nervous breakdown when Burns was twenty-one, from which he was slow to recover. But the ordeal of poverty and toil also made him, in Crawford’s words, “the master poet of democracy.” In his poem “The Twa Dogs,” the Laird “gets in his racked rents,” and lives in luxury, while his tenants, “poor bodies,” wear themselves out “Wi’ dirty stanes biggin’ a dyke [building a wall],” and come close to death from “cauld and hunger.” It was his own life story, and it bred the defiant egalitarianism of a poem like “For a’ that and a’ that,” which has become so famous that it seems almost proverbial: “The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,/ The Man’s the gowd [gold] for a’ that.”

Quite apart from Romantic notions of Jacobite rebellion, Burns was also indebted to his father for his education. William taught the children himself at home in the evenings by candlelight, but he also sent them to school as long as he could afford to, and an inspiring young schoolmaster named John Murdoch recognized Robert’s talents and encouraged him. His education was English, not Scots. Models for composition were taken from Arthur Masson’s Collection of English Prose and Verse, and Murdoch introduced Burns to the poetry of Milton and of Pope, whom he hugely admired. It might, as Crawford says, seem ridiculous that an elegant, witty, eighteenth-century Catholic poet should become an ideal for a young Presbyterian rustic on a windswept Scottish farm. But it is a sign of the vigor and versatility of Burns’s intelligence that he could learn from such disparate sources.

Part of his mind belonged to his mother’s world of Scots folk song, but another part belonged to “polite” English literature. Crawford has discovered that one of the volumes Burns pored over and sought to imitate was a collection of letters by the wits of the Restoration and Queen Anne’s reign—Wycherley, Dryden, Pope, Swift, and their circle—and he dreamed of founding his own society of wits in rural Ayrshire. He read John Locke and Adam Smith, and improving volumes that his father borrowed from a book society in Ayr. At meals he always had a book open before him. He also taught himself French from a French dictionary and a copy of a French romance Murdoch lent him. Burns’s brother attested that he could read and understand any French author, and that “several lads in Ayr” were soon “gabbling French” too, following his example.

But despite his gifts and his intellectual quickness, his life was scarcely better than that of a farm laborer, and it is important to remember how thwarted he must have felt when we come to consider his relations with women. These have been the source of much scandal and hand-wringing over the years and Crawford is not, we may be thankful, inclined to investigate Burns’s various liaisons in detail. The general pattern he identifies is that Burns went to bed with uneducated women of his own class, but longed for and was excited by elegant, educated women whose social position made them sexually inaccessible. There seems no point in denying that he could be exploitative and predatory, and that some aspects of his sex life were not consistent with the egalitarianism of his poems.


A servant girl in the Burns family bore him his first illegitimate child in 1785. Another servant girl, Margaret Cameron, lost her job when she became pregnant by him the following year. Soon after his marriage to Jean Armour, a stonemason’s daughter of little education, he wooed a lawyer’s wife, Agnes McLehose. Since she resisted him he had sex with her servant Jenny Clow, a country girl from a working-class background, and she gave birth to his son Robert in 1788. Three years later she died of tuberculosis, but the child survived. According to Crawford there is no evidence that Burns contributed anything to his son’s support, or even that they ever spoke to each other. In 1790 Burns had an affair with Ann Park, the barmaid of the Globe Inn in Dumfries, only just out of her teens, and she bore him a daughter, Elizabeth, at about the same time as Jean gave birth to their son William. When Ann later married a carpenter, Elizabeth was received into the Burns household, but was confined to the kitchen and not allowed to associate with the Burns children.


Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library

Eugène Delacroix: Tam o’ Shanter, 1849. Based on the poem by Robert Burns, the painting shows the scene in which the drunken peasant Tam o’ Shanter is pursued by a witch who holds on to his horse’s tail so hard that it comes off in her hand.

Crawford pleads that Burns’s relations with women were “restlessly mobile” rather than “deliberately malign.” They may be seen, too, as an expression of freedom from the rigorous constraints of his life, and an assertion of his independence from authority. The first song he ever learned by heart proclaimed that love was more important than money or social status: “I wad rather hae my lassie, tho’ she cam in her smock,/Than a Princess wi’ the gear & the blathrie o’t [the wealth and trumpery of it].” His illicit love affairs were also protests against the self-righteous interference of the Church in his private life. The “kirk” policed sexuality, and decreed that “fornicators of both sexes” should be made to sit on a repenting stool in church in full view of the congregation. Burns underwent this penance twice, and he was clearly, as Crawford says, sick of having his sexual nature criminalized.

After his first public humiliation he wrote an unrepentant poem about how, as he sat before the congregation with his “handsome Betsey” doing penance beside him, the sight of her “limbs so clean” stirred his longing, and “made my lips to water.” Resentment of the kirk gave rise to his satirical fusillades against church elders and other virtuous moralists (“the unco guid”). One of the most devastating is “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” a dramatic monologue spoken by a sanctimonious hypocrite who is confident, in Calvinist mode, of his own salvation and his neighbors’ damnation. It is easy to believe that the anger behind such a poem came straight from Burns’s heart. But the poems of deathless love, where he vows to be faithful “Till a’ the seas gang dry,” must be thought of as written by Burns’s anti-self, or the self he wished to be, or the self he would have liked to be had life allowed it, rather than the self who seduced and abandoned young women with such seeming thoughtlessness.

That is not a criticism of the poems, of course. What else are poets supposed to do but use their imagination? But it should warn us against any simple autobiographical reading of Burns’s poems. Crawford quotes the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, who said of Burns: “What is surprising is that the man who emerges from the poems and the man who emerges from the documents are one and the same person.” Crawford seems to agree, but at several points his biography makes us doubt it.

The issue of slavery in particular causes Crawford some concern. The whole tenor of Burns’s poetry—its hatred of oppression, its scorn for differences of rank, its celebration of the brotherhood of all mankind—would lead us to suppose that slavery would be anathema to him. Yet in December 1785 he was in correspondence with a contact in Jamaica about gaining employment as an assistant overseer, otherwise known as a “book-keeper,” on a sugar plantation. There were many Scots colonists in Jamaica and they had gained a reputation for being ruthlessly authoritarian toward their slaves. A book-keeper had control of the gangs of negroes in the field and in the factory where the sugar cane was processed. The whip was frequently used to maintain the required work rate, and in addition the Jamaican slave laws allowed such punishments as branding, dismemberment, and other mutilations, with all of which, as a book-keeper, Burns would have been more or less directly associated.

His plans to make a career in slave-management prospered. He obtained the post he sought, and had booked his passage, when he decided not to go after all, apparently because Jean had given birth to twins. He believed, he explained, that the soul survived “beyond the stinted bourne of our present existence,” and feared that God would punish him in the afterlife if he deserted his children. Apparently, though, he did not express any doubts about the morality of slavery or about the Almighty’s possible disapproval of it. His willingness to become an active part of the slave system may, Crawford concedes, have been the outcome of personal desperation, but “it is still shocking, and contradicts the ideology implicit and explicit in much of his poetry.”

It is also surprising that Burns should have been so eager to gain lucrative employment under the Hanoverian government, given the proud independence voiced in his poetry and his professed loyalty to the vanquished Stuarts. In 1788 he took a course that qualified him to become an Excise officer. No vacancy in the Excise service was immediately available so, Crawford recounts, Burns sent a “long, wheedling poem” to one of the Excise commissioners, requesting that the Dumfries Excise officer, Leonard Smith, be stripped of his post and the position given to him instead. He even suggested that God would be on his side in depriving Smith of his job. “I am sure I go on Scripture-grounds in this affair,” he urged, “for I ‘ask in faith, nothing doubting’; and for the true Scripture-reason too— Because I have the fullest conviction that ‘my Benefactor is good.'” Holy Willie could not have put it better. These entreaties proved successful, and in 1789 Smith was removed from his post and replaced by Burns.

Burns’s keenness to maximize his income at another’s expense does not, as Crawford notes, sort well with his championship of egalitarianism and fraternity in his poetry. Further, becoming an Excise man entailed siding with the king against the people, an awkward position for a professed revolutionary. In rural Scotland the availability of illicit alcohol was regarded by many as a right, and smuggling had, it seems, been one of the occupations of Burns’s mother’s family. Now he was committed to stamping it out. In 1792, with other Excise officers and a contingent of dragoons, he took part in the capture of a smuggling schooner, the Rosamond, at Sarkfoot, near Dumfries. The Sarkfoot residents were all on the smugglers’ side, and sabotaged the local boats so that the dragoons could not use them. But in the end the smugglers fled, leaving a rich prize to Burns and his colleagues. As an Excise man, he protested, he felt “like Judas Iscariot preaching the gospel.” But this did not prevent him from busily seeking advancement in the service. Well-placed friends pulled strings on his behalf, and in 1792 he was promoted to a more lucrative post. At the same time he received his diploma as a member of the Royal Archers of Scotland, the monarch’s ceremonial bodyguard.

Meanwhile he was composing songs and voicing opinions far less supportive of the government, and his hypocrisy did not go unnoticed. At the end of 1792 his immediate superior in the Dumfries Excise told him that instructions had come from the Board of Excise to inquire into his “political conduct,” since he was believed to be “a person disaffected to Government.” Burns was clearly alarmed. The charge against him was “a LIE,” he protested. He was “most devoutly attached” to the British constitution. He wrote to the Excise commissioner who had arranged for him to replace Leonard Smith, begging him to intervene on his behalf, and not to allow his “much-loved wife” and his “helpless, prattling little ones” to be “turned adrift into the world.”

In private Burns continued to make clear his real feelings about the British government and its declaration of war against revolutionary France. But in public, as he explained to a friend, he set “a seal on my lips, as to these unlucky politics.” Even back in 1787, when he scratched his anti-Hanoverian verses on the inn window in Stirling, he seems quickly to have realized that it was a foolish thing to do, and on his way back through Stirling he smashed the window. Now, in the early 1790s, with the government fearful of revolution at home and abroad, he had to be more careful still. Crawford points out that he never allowed his best-known song of egalitarian fraternity, “For a’ that and a’ that,” to appear with his name attached.

At the time he was writing it he was displaying his loyalty to the British government by drilling with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, one of the regiments raised during the panic about a possible French invasion. In April 1795 he composed a patriotic song for a Volunteers dinner: “Does haughty Gaul invasion threat,/Then let the louns bewaure [rascals beware], Sir.” “For a’ that and a’ that” was published over his name in London newspapers in June 1796, but by that time he had only a month to live. He died, aged thirty-seven, on July 21. His health had been failing for some time and was not improved, it has been alleged, by years of heavy drinking. But the immediate cause of death may have been a blood infection following the extraction of a tooth.

The compromises in which Burns found himself enmeshed in his political life and in his relations with women were, to a degree, mirrored in the poetic style he perfected. The volume that made him famous, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, published in July 1786, enthralled sophisticated urban readers, because they took it as the effusions of a “Heaven-taught ploughman” whose “Original Genius” displayed the unspoiled beauty of natural man, like one of Rousseau’s noble savages. Burns was rather amused to find himself characterized in a manner so unlike his real self. “I am in a fair way,” he wrote to a friend, “of becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan.” His poetic voice was carefully constructed, drawing on both his English education and his mother’s inheritance of popular song, and the fusion was not entirely original. The Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, whose work Burns admired, had also mixed Scots vernacular with English terminology. When a friend of Fergusson’s privately pointed out to Burns that his poetry often imitated earlier verse, Burns readily agreed, explaining that it was “part of the machinery, as he called it, of his poetical character to pass for an illiterate ploughman who wrote from pure inspiration.”

The major gain, however, was in tone, and it is in the tonal analysis of Burns’s poems that Crawford is at his best in this outstanding book. He shows how the Scots dialect adds “deftness, warmth, humour” to Burns’s verse, and a quality he calls “daftness,” that flows from Burns’s “instinct for fun and self-mockery.” Another advantage of dialect was that it guarded against grandeur and the temptations of “transcendental illumination,” to which Romantic poets are often prone. Dialect allowed an alliance of the serious and the funny that is more difficult in staider English.

Crawford cites, as an example, the poem Burns wrote when his father was dying, which uses the Scots tradition of talking-animal verse, and is entitled “The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, The Author’s only Pet Yowe [Ewe], An Unco [very] Mournfu’ Tale.” In the poem, Burns’s dying father’s anxiety about his family is transmuted into the sheep’s concern for her offspring, especially “My poor toop-lamb [young ram], my son an’ heir.” Despite its awareness of a loved parent’s impending death, the poem is, Crawford observes, almost jaunty, turning a dark subject into “something light and even life-affirming.”

The poem he wrote when his brother John died at age sixteen, one of his greatest, also uses animal verse and dialect to widen the boundaries of private grief. John’s funeral was on November 1, 1785, and Burns’s title links it to that time: “To a Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November, 1785.” The poet’s address to the “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie” who has lost her home is, as Crawford says, implicitly political, inviting sympathy for dispossessed people and the natural world, and its dialect gives it the universality of folk wisdom: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft a-gley [Often go wrong].”

In Burns’s poem “To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church,” the transformative power of dialect can be observed under, as it were, laboratory conditions, since the source of its most famous lines has been identified as a sentence from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which Burns is known to have read: “If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would be generally unavoidable.” In Burns this becomes: ” O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!” which immediately makes Smith’s original look starchy and prim. Crawford’s investigation of the subtleties that flow from Burns’s seemingly homespun verse is a continual pleasure, and should ensure his book a considerably wider readership than “the research culture of modern academia.”

To cater for that wider readership Crawford and Christopher MacLachlan have opportunely put together by far the most appealing and important selection of Burns’s writing that has appeared to date. The Best Laid Schemes* includes not only all the great poems, but also excerpts from letters and other prose writings that illuminate the poet’s personality and art. The textual editing is meticulous, Crawford contributes a richly informative introduction, and marginal glosses elucidate any linguistic difficulties. It is beautifully produced, with an unpretentious elegance that Burns would have approved.

This Issue

November 5, 2009