Robert "Auld Lang Syne" Burns (1759-1796)

Robert was born on 25 January 1759, in Alloway1, Scotland, the eldest of seven children. His father, William Burnes2, was a gardener/farmer who seemed to have awfully bad business sense. The family lived in poverty until 1766, when William rented a farm. The family then lived in even worse poverty3. Robert got very little education, since he so often had to help with the heavy work of farming, but he read a great deal, and that made up for a lot. He wrote his first poem, "O Once I Loved,"4 in 1774, and after that there was no stopping him. Things got financially better for the family in 1777, after they moved to a different farm, and Robert was able to read and write even more. In 1781, Robert went to the nearby town of Irvine and started a business5, which was a colossal failure.

While there, though, he met a sailor named Richard Brown who read Robert's poetry and encouraged him to publish it. Robert agreed, mainly because he had hopes that the royalties would pay his way to Jamaica, where he hoped to make his fortune6. The book, printed in 1786, was so successful that Robert decided he could make his fortune right where he was7. This book, known as the Kilmarnock Edition, featured mainly satiric and moral poems, not the lyrics he is most known for, but they were both vivid and innovative. He frequently satirized the Presbyterian Church (by far the dominant religion in Scotland) for its doctrine of predestination8, and occasionally did such a good job that he was afraid to have the poems printed9. He pioneered a new form of satire, combining a traditional Scottish verse form with the contrasting images and ironic rhymes used by the English satirist Alexander Pope.

In 1786, Jean Armour became pregnant, and she eventually had twins. Robert gave her some kind of paper acknowledging her as his wife, but her father was outraged and tore the paper up10. Jean meekly submitted. Robert was very angry at her for that, and when he was suddenly a successful poet and Jean's father was pushing for them to marry, Robert, triumphantly, refused her hand11.

Later that year, Robert went to Edinburgh to drum up interest in a new edition of his poems and hopefully find himself a better job12. Though he received a warm welcome and found many admirers of his poetry, no one wanted to give him a job because they didn't want to ruin the image they had of him, as a rustic who wrote about the simple things because that was all he knew. His fans didn't want to picture him as a government clerk. Getting the Edinburgh Edition of his work published was no problem. It was really hard for him to get that job as a tax collector.

Over the next few years, Robert turned his attention to the gathering and writing of Scottish songs. He'd often put his own poems to music he composed, or to traditional Scottish airs, and at this point in time, there was quite a market for that. He edited and contributed to several volumes. He finally hit financial security around 1790, and it was about this time that he started writing what many call his greatest poem, Tam O'Shanter. But just two years later, his health, which had never been great, began to decline further. The fits of depression which had plagued him most of his life got worse. His really good poems became few and far between. He finally died on 21 July 1796 at Dumfries13.

One final note: I saw a reference to Robert out on the Web, calling him the most famous Scotsman who ever lived. I hope this is true, but realistically I doubt it very much. The theory here at Incompetech is that either Sean Connery or Scotty14 from Star Trek® would actually beat him out for that title. If you'd care to vote on this, drop us a line.

Bentman, Raymond. Robert Burns. Boston:Twayne Publishers, 1987.

  1. I looked up this town in the biggest atlas I could find. It wasn't there.

  2. No, that isn't a typo; that's how his father spelled it.

  3. There are a lot of theories on why the farm didn't fly, especially since other farmers in that area did just fine. Form your own hypothesis.

  4. This was a love poem to a girl he knew. Whatever else he had, Robert certainly had an eye for the ladies.

  5. He was a flax-spinner. I'm not sure what that means either.

  6. He also needed money to support a woman named Betty Paton and her new daughter, Elizabeth. I told you he had an eye for the ladies. In fact, he had to stand penance for fornication at least twice.

  7. And anyway, by then he'd already met Jean Armour, who would be his next lady-love.

  8. That meant that those who were destined for heaven would go there no matter WHAT they did on earth. Many members of the church naturally felt they fit into that category. You can bet they took full advantage.

  9. "Holy Willie's Prayer," for example. It's a hoot. Holy Willie was actually William Fisher, an elder of Robert's parish who censured one of Robert's friends for neglect of public worship.

  10. Robert was not only poor, he was of a slightly lower social class. Still, I bet her father was really mortified when he got so famous.

  11. If I had been Jean, that would have been it for Robert. But in 1788, she married him anyway. She was a kind, forgiving woman. She had to be. Robert had flings with other women for most of their married life.

  12. He farmed about as well as his father.

  13. His detractors say he died of alcohol, or possibly some sort of venereal disease, but don't you believe it. His death was caused by some sort of heart condition, either endocarditis (an infection of the heart cavity) or rheumatic fever, caused by the large amounts of heavy work he had to do as a child. The life of a Scottish farmer was not a happy one.

  14. Yes, we realize he's not actually Scottish, but we're pessimists when it comes to estimating the awareness of the average American.

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