In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Robert Burns

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biography
  • Collections of Essays
  • Bibliographies, Indexes, and Catalogues
  • Translations
  • Journals and Special Issues

British and Irish Literature Robert Burns
Pauline Mackay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0122


Robert Burns (b. 1759–d. 1796) is the national bard of Scotland and is recognized globally as the country’s most iconic literary figure. Burns was born in Alloway in Ayrshire, the eldest son of William Burnes (b. 1721–d. 1784), a farmer, and Agnes Broun (b. 1732–d. 1820). The family endured great financial hardship, the consequence of failed agricultural ventures at the farms of Mossgiel and Lochlea. However, Burns’s father insisted on the necessity of education and arranged for Burns’s tuition by schoolmaster John Murdoch (b. 1747–d. 1824). Burns was a keen scholar, and his vast reading clearly informed his literary output. As a founder of the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club, a distinguished Freemason, and a member of convivial gentlemen’s clubs such as the Crochallan Fencibles in Edinburgh, the poet pursued his passion for intellectual debate and homosocial culture. Profoundly religious in his own way, Burns often courted the disapproval of the Presbyterian Kirk owing to his dalliances with the opposite sex (he fathered at least twelve children with at least five women). However, such relationships yielded a wealth of material for Burns’s poetic consideration of love, gender, and sexuality, as well as witty and scathing religious satires such as “The Fornicator’ and “The Holy Fair.” Burns eventually married Jean Armour (b. 1767–d. 1834), following a fraught relationship which culminated in the poet’s proposed emigration to Jamaica in 1786. However, Burns was encouraged to remain in Scotland following the success of his first collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which met with emphatic critical acclaim and prompted Burns’s lionization by the Scottish literati. Consequently, Burns successfully produced an extended publication from Edinburgh in 1787 (reprinted in several editions thereafter). Despite his literary success, Burns returned to farming at Ellisland in Dumfries in 1788, and it was there that he produced what is perhaps his most famous work, “Tam o’ Shanter” (1790). However, his agricultural ventures continued to be plagued by misfortune. He eventually secured work as a government exciseman (a job to ensure that people paid their taxes, particularly where related to alcohol) in 1791, an appointment that was endangered on at least one occasion owing to Burns’s complex political predilections and sympathetic poetical treatment of Republicanism at the time of the French Revolution. Burns’s literary output in his later years largely centered on his activities as a writer and collector of songs for Scots Musical Museum by James Johnson (b. 1787–d. 1803) and Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs by George Thomson (b. 1792–d. 1851). Burns died from a recurring medical complaint at the age of just thirty-seven. The diversity of Burns’s extensive oeuvre is reflected in the multifarious critical examination of the poet’s life and legacy, which pays tribute to Burns’s status as a national poet and international literary figure and demonstrates his cultural importance as a proto-Romantic and an author of the Scottish Enlightenment.

General Overviews

A vast number of studies providing overviews of Robert Burns’s literary output have been produced since the beginning of the 19th century; therefore, the selections in this section have been selected as representative examples. Carruthers 2006, Crawford 1960, and McGuirk 2014 are scholarly, yet highly readable, introductions that, owing to their close engagement with Burns’s works and attention to his historical and cultural contexts, will prove useful to students and researchers alike. Daiches 1952 scrutinizes the verses selected by Burns for inclusion in his Kilmarnock volume and goes on to consider works that were initially omitted, offering the reader an insight into the decisions made by the poet in producing his first collected edition. This, taken together with Daiches’s consideration of Burns’s activities as a writer and collector of songs, allows the reader to draw conclusions about Burns as an editor as well as an author. Angellier 1893 is the first and most extensive European critical study of the poet’s biography and literary canon. However, this text is frequently criticized as a melodramatic and overly sentimental interpretation of Burns’s life and works. As a part of such a critique, Hecht 1991 seeks to debunk the inaccuracies and myths repeated and propelled by 19th-century critics and biographers.

  • Angellier, Auguste. Robert Burns: La vie, les œuvres. 2 vols. Paris: Hachette, 1893.

    A French-language study, the first volume examines Burns’s biography, whereas the second provides a critical interpretation of his literature. Useful as an overview, this study is also significant as an example of 19th-century European critics’ treatment of the poet and his works. An important text for those studying Burns’s reception outside of Scotland.

  • Carruthers, Gerard. Robert Burns. Tavistock, UK: Northcote, 2006.

    A broad and accessible introduction to Burns studies for both students and researchers, this thematic study of Burns’s works examines the poet’s religious and political predilections, his satires, and his love poetry, while situating Burns within his cultural and national contexts as both a Scottish and a British writer.

  • Crawford, Thomas. Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1960.

    This text is remarkable for Crawford’s extensive and thoroughly enjoyable close reading of Burns’s poetry and song, carefully contextualized and complemented by an extensive glossary and phonetic guide to help readers understand Burns’s use of the Scots language.

  • Daiches, David. Robert Burns. London: Bell, 1952.

    Daiches’s study makes a particular effort to couch Burns within the Scottish literary tradition and to consider the poet’s creative output with reference to the production of his first published edition, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock, Scotland: John Wilson, 1787), as well as his activities as a writer and collector of songs.

  • Hecht, Hans. Robert Burns: The Man and His Work. Translated by Jane Lymburn. Ayr, Scotland: Alloway, 1991.

    Initially published in Germany in 1919, Hecht’s study is a highly readable biography that incorporates critical interpretations of selected excerpts from Burns’s poetry and prose. Hecht does much to correct inaccuracies previously reiterated by 18th- and 19th-century critics and biographers regarding the poet’s life and character. This book also contains a carefully categorized bibliography.

  • McGuirk, Carol. Reading Robert Burns: Texts, Contexts, Transformations. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.

    A recently published critical overview of Burns’s works, McGuirk’s study approaches the bard’s literary skill and complexity, paying particular attention to the relationship between Burns’s poetry and song, his use of both Scots and English, and the influence of Burns’s works on later significant literary figures, including William Wordsworth.

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