Robert Burns, a Scottish poet, born near Ayr, Jan. 25, 1759, died at Dumfries, July 21, 1796. His parents were peasants of the poorest class, but eager for the moral and intellectual improvement of their children, and lost no opportunity for supplying them with the rudiments of education. Robert, in the intervals of driving the plough and other farm work, soon acquired a knowledge of English. His chief books were the Bible, Mason's " Collection of Prose and Verse," the "Life of Hannibal," and the history of Sir "William Wallace. Later in life he attempted to learn French and Latin, without much success; he also eagerly read the " Spectator," Shakespeare, Pope, and particularly the poems of Allan Ramsay. His first attempt in verse was made in his 16th year. "A bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass," as he says in a letter to Moore, " who was coupled with him in the labors of the hay harvest," awoke his early inspirations. Robert and his brother Gilbert were employed by their father as regular day laborers, at £7 per annum, until Robert's 19th year, when he went to the school of Kirkoswald to learn mensuration and surveying.
During this time he wrote and had printed " The Dirge of Winter," " The Death of Poor Maillie, " Mail-lie's Elegy," and " John Barleycorn," in which he manifested that deep fountain of pathos and humor which afterward rendered him famous. In 1781 he removed to Irvine to learn the trade of flax dresser, in which, however, he did not make much progress. In 1783, a short time before the death of his father, he and his brother took a farm at Mossgiel, with a view of providing shelter for their parents. In the midst of his distresses he wrote several satirical pieces, such as "The Holy Tailzie," "Holy Willie's Prayer," " The Ordination," "The Holy Fair," and others,.chiefly levelled at the churchmen, which won him a wide local reputation. To his residence at Mossgiel are also to be referred the verses "To a Mouse," "To a Mountain Daisy," "Man was made to mourn," and that sweetest of pastorals, "The Cotter's Saturday Night;" besides innumerable love songs, some of them the finest in the language, none of which, he says, related to imaginary heroines. His want of success on the farm suggested to him the project of going to Jamaica, and to enable him to do this he proposed to publish a collection of his writings.
Another motive was probably his liaison with Jean Armour. She had borne him twins, and he had given her a written acknowledgment of marriage, good in Scotch law; but, being unable to support a family, he had been prosecuted by her relatives. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1786, he issued 600 copies of his poems at Kilmarnock, from which he derived £20, enough to enable him to procure a passage in a ship about.to sail from the Clyde. His chest was on the road to Greenock, and he had written " The gloomy night is gathering fast," as a kind of farewell to Scotland, when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of his arrested the execution of his purpose. This letter recommended a visit to Edinburgh, with a view to receive the applause which his poems had excited, and to arrange for the issue of a new edition. Burns went to the metropolis, and for more than a year was admired, feted, and flattered by persons of all ranks. He returned home with £500, the profits of the publication; of this he gave £200 to his brother, and with the remainder stocked a farm at Ellisland, in Dumfriesshire, where he took up his residence in 1788, and married Jean Armour. He was also appointed a collector of excise with a salary of £50, which was afterward raised to £70; but the duties of the place, together with his convivial habits, interfered so much with the labors of the farm, that the latter yielded him little or nothing, and he was compelled to surrender it to the landlord.
Toward the close of 1791 he retired to a small house in the town of Dumfries, where he supported himself and his family on his official stipend, and by random contributions to Johnson's "Museum" and Thomson's " Collection of Original Scottish Airs." But intemperance, exposure, and the disappointment of his hopes of promotion undermined his constitution, and he died in his 37th year. During his last illness his dwelling was thronged by persons of every rank, and his funeral was attended by a great multitude. In 1813 a monument was erected to his memory at Dumfries. The centenary of his birthday, in 1859, was celebrated in almost every village of Scotland, in England, the United States, the British colonies, and India; the anniversary of his birth is commemorated by Scotsmen all over the world. - He left four sons, of whom two entered the service of the East India company. Of these, Robert, who was an accomplished Gaelic scholar, and not without poetical ability, born in 1786, died at Dumfries, May 14, 1857; and William, born in 1790, died at Cheltenham, England, in 1872. The latter, who rose to the rank of colonel in the service, purchased the house in which his father died, and where his mother resided until her death in 1834. He also executed a deed leaving the house, garden, and a building to be used as a school room, to the Dumfries education society, upon condition of the payment of an annuity to the nieces and grand-nephew of the poet during their lifetime, and that the house should thereafter be kept in repair. - The poetry of Burns appeals to the deepest and purest emotions of the human heart.
It is so fraught with passion, so instinct with melody, so true to nature, so artless in grace, that every one must be touched either by its pathos, its beauty, or its mirth. He had " an inspiration for every fancy, a music for every mood." In the simple, the naive, the sweet, he is scarcely more distinguished than he is in the grotesque, the wild, and even the terrible. His " Tam o' Shanter" displays narrative ability of the first order, while his "Jolly Beggars" is filled with dramatic power. But his peculiar strength was lyrical. Of the poems of Burns, a third edition was published in 1793, a fourth in 1798. Dr. Currie of Liverpool published a collected edition of his poems and letters for the benefit of his family (4 vols., London, 1800); and Allan Cunningham edited a more complete edition (8 vols., London, 1834). His biography has been written by Lockhart (Edinburgh, 1828). In the "Life and Works of Burns," by Robert Chambers (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1851-'2), the poems are incorporated and arranged in chronological order.