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Robert Burns


Robert Burns

The following Robert Burns poems are in Booknotes:

  • To a Mouse
  • To a Louse
  • A Man's a Man for A' That
  • Holy Willie's Prayer
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Booknotes allows you to read our notes about the poems, but you can also create your own and share them with other users if you wish.


portrait of robert burns

The son of William Burnes, an Ayrshire tenant farmer, and Agnes Broun, Robert Burns was born in Alloway on January 25th, 1759.

Burns's father ensured the poet's education, and from 1765, John Murdoch taught Burns and his brother Gilbert in a school founded by their father and neighbours.

Murdoch introduced Burns to the works of Alexander Pope, schooling him in English, French and Latin.

In 1774, Burns wrote his first song, 'Handsome Nell', for Nellie Kilpatrick.

By the time the family had settled in Lochlie, Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771) and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760) had become Burns's 'bosom favourites'. The impact of Pope, Mackenzie, Sterne and his immediate predecessor, Robert Fergusson, fired Burns's poetic impulse, and in 1783, he began writing his first Commonplace Book.

Another move brought Burns to Mossgiel, near Mauchline, and in April 1785, he met his future wife, Jean Armour. By March 1786, Jean was pregnant, and owing to his 'fornication', Burns was put before the kirk session, and sentenced to three penitential appearances facing the congregation. Although copies of 'The Holy Fair' and 'Holy Willie's Prayer' circulated the parish in 1785, this treatment was to inspire some of his most famous anti-Calvinist works. On July 31st 1786, his seminal Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published.

Burns departed in November 1786 for Edinburgh, where he was met by the rapturous praise of the literati. Henry Mackenzie enthusiastically eulogised the poet, christening him 'the heaven-taught ploughman', thus forcing Burns to fit an enduringly belittling but rewarding role.

On 17th April 1787, his first Edinburgh edition was published. Burns's visit to Edinburgh ensured his literary immortality, and on 2nd August, the poet penned his autobiography in a celebrated letter to Dr. John Moore. Burns's place as Scotland's national poet was permanently assured.

In 1788, Burns moved to Ellisland Farm, and in 1789, began work as an Excise officer in Dumfries. Work for the Excise was arduous, and while simultaneously labouring at Ellisland, Burns's health diminished. Towards the end of 1791, Burns had to leave Ellisland, and in a move to Dumfries, took a house in Bank Street.

In his final years, Burns continued Excise work, as well as writing a phenomenal number of remarkable poems, songs and letters. By 1796, illness and poverty had crippled him, and on 21st July, Burns died in Dumfries. At his funeral four days later, Burns was buried with civil and military honours. While Scotland mourned the death of Burns, Jean Armour gave birth to his son, Maxwell.



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