Robert Burns: The Ploughman Poet

Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland but his influence spreads much further.

He is considered by some to be the first of the Romantic Poets, writing not just in Gaelic and a Scots dialect but also in standard English and his poetry captured the mood of dissatisfaction and insurrection that would culminate in the French Revolution and influence those that such as Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley who would come later.

Indeed, his unconventional views were reflected in his private life as he had numerous love affairs and sired a number of children out of wedlock.

He is also credited with not just preserving but saving the folklore, songs, and literary traditions of Auld Scotland.

He was born in the village of Alloway in Ayreshire on 25 January, 1759, the son of a tenant farmer and eldest of 7 children.

His father later came into possession of a much larger farm and as the eldest son the burden of working it largely fell upon his shoulders taking an early toll upon his health.

It was subsistence level farming and hard graft that rarely provided more than food on the table, and the nightmare of poverty often loomed large.

His first book of verse was published on 31 July 1786, was an instant success and it was it was to be poetry not the sweat of his brow that would elevate Burns to a position of at least some comfort.

Having at last received the consent of her parents in 1788, he married his long-time companion Jean Armour by whom he was to have 9 children having already sired 4 others by different women; and the many influential friends he now made, the commissions he received, and the sales of his verse allowed him to provide for his large family though he was never by any means a rich man.

A Scottish nationalist Burns, unlike most of his contemporaries was a Lowland Scot who sympathised with the plight of his Highland brethren perhaps as a result of his travels north to collect the oral history of his country that might otherwise had been lost forever.

Robert Burns died of rheumatic fever 21 July 1796, aged just 37.

The date of his birth, 25 January, is now celebrated every year in Scotland as ‘Burns Night’ which in some ways has come to make him appear a comfortable or safe poet which he certainly never was, and it is no coincidence that there are not similar celebrations in England.

He is largely viewed today by historians as a radical, and even by some a proto-socialist – the poetical equivalent of Thomas Paine – but if so his was a radicalism born of patriotism, a love of Scotland, of its people, of a concern for their rights, but most of all a regard for their freedom.

Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation

Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,
Fareweel our ancient glory;
Fareweel ev’n to the Scottish name,
Sae fam’d in martial story.
Now Sark rins over Solway sands,
An’ Tweed rins to the ocean,
To mark where England’s province stands-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

What force or guile could not subdue,
Thro’ many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few,
For hireling traitor’s wages.
The English stell we could disdain,
Secure in valour’s station;
But English gold has been our bane-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

O would, or I had seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

A Man’s A Man For A’That

Is there for honesty poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave – we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that,
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A price can mak a belted knight,
A marquise, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that

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