Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Robert Burns Biography

Robert Burns was born on January 25th, 1759, in Alloway, a small village along the western coast of Scotland. His mother, Agnes Brown, though illiterate, possessed an affinity for Scottish songs and ballads. His father, William Burns, worked a small area of land around Alloway and was relatively well educated for a peasant farmer, a quality he strove to provide for his own children.  Through this and the surrounding influences of folk culture, Burns was raised in a bicultural tradition of Scottish vernacular paired with English book culture that would follow him throughout his life. He had begun to write seriously as early as sixteen, and his earliest work traces an interesting dichotomy between songs composed for love interests and reflective poems concerned with life’s frailty. 

By 1781, then a young man, he had become a freemason and in 1784, following years of failed farming ventures, his father died of tuberculosis.  Around this time, Burns began to keep a commonplace book which served as something of a literary workshop for the young poet, a space in which he would draft different features of his poetic style. Notable among these was his revival of the Habbie stanza (now known as the Burns stanza), a form which “transmits metrically an impulse to fuse the solemn and the lightly risible” (Crawford par. 12). In 1784 he and his brother began to lease a farm at Mossgiel, and it was here that Burns met Jean Armour, the woman who would become his wife. It was not long before Jean was carrying his first child, and when he refused to marry her her father threatened legal action, forcing him to turn his shares in the farm over to his brother and flee to Kilmarnock. However, in Kilmarnock Burns’s luck began to change, and here, through a series of connections, he published his first volume of poems, which sold out in a month. The success of this volume brought him notoriety within Edinburgh cultural circles, and through these connections he was able to finance an extended stay in the Scottish capital. Here he had several affairs (producing at least one child), waited on prominent philosophers and literary figures, and even met the then-16-year-old Walter Scott. 

In 1788 he left Edinburgh and began to lease a farm in Ellisland where he married Jean Armour. At this time he was able to secure a commission as an excise officer, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. In 1791 he extricated himself from his lease and moved his family to Dumfries where he could divide his time between poetry and his work in the excise service. From 1795 onward he was aware of his deteriorating health yet continued to work, knowing that his position would guarantee his family a pension upon his death. On July 21st, 1796, he died of rheumatic heart failure the same day his son Maxwell was born. After his death several volumes of his later poetry were collected and published, influencing (along with his earlier work) the then budding school of English romanticism. In the United States, he found admirers in John Greenleaf Whittier and Walt Whitman; globally, his reputation has sustained well into the contemporary through the work of Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney and Les Murray.    

Works Cited:

Crawford, Robert. “Burns, Robert (1759-1796).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 
Sept. 2004,


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