ROBERT BURNS

Robert Burns (1759-1796)Robert, son of William Burns, a Scotch farmer, was born near the town of Ayr, January 25, 1759. His father, though very poor, gave him a solid English education; and the boy read eagerly all books he could come at. But the life was hard, and at the age of 15 Burns was working as his father's head labourer. The father died in 1784, brought to great straits through the failure of a lawsuit. Burns, with his brother Gilbert, struggled on bravely, but with poor success. He was then in the first glow of his passion for Jean Armour, whom he finally married, and but for her parents' opposition would have married earlier. During the next two years many of his best poems were written, as the Cottar's Saturday Night, Holy Willie's Prayer, Address to the Deil, The Mouse, The Daisy, and others. In 1786, having published some of these to gain passage-money for the West Indies, an invitation to Edinburgh, then containing the most brilliant intellectual society in Britain, made him famous. He gained, however, nothing but the rather meagre appointment of exciseman, with which he settled in Dumfries. Like other brave spirits of his time, he was accused of sympathy with the French Revolution. It is the fact that in the spring of 1792, Britain being still at peace with France, he sent to the Legislative Assembly two guns that had passed into his hands from a captured smuggler. And two of his noblest lyrics, Scots wha hae, and A man's a man for a' that, written 1792-5, show that the fiery heat of the great crisis had reached him. His poetry was the outcome of his nature. His scathing satire of Calvanistic hypocrisy, the wild humour of Tam o' Shanter, the burning passion of his love-songs, will live as long as the language endures. Burns died at Dumfries, 21st July 1796.

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This biography is reprinted from The New Calendar of Great Men. Ed. Frederic Harrison. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.

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