Robert Burns (1754 – 1796)


Robert Burns is quite a difficult poet for discussion. The attitude to him is very different (if we mean critics). The idea that he was peasant poet endowed with genius is partially true. He was quite an educated man, knew French was not good at Latin. He is shown by artists as a true representative of soil, some other artists show him as a gentleman poet.

“Holy Fair”

“Twa Dogs”

“Twa Herds”

“holu Willie’s Prayer”

“Address to the Deil”

“Death of Doctor Hornbook”

“The Jolly Beggars”

“To a Mountain Daisy”

“To a Louse”

“Is there for Honest Poverty”

“The Vision”

“Tam O’Shanter”

Burns is a romanticist but his romanticism is different from that of Blake, whose romanticism is philosophical. Burns may be considered as a contrast to Blake’s vision of life. His romanticism has a real world for a background, the world of everyday life. Burns understanding of democracy is very much different & was influenced by some historical events.

Magna Carta (1215)

The great charter of England signed by king John under pressure of barons & the archbishop of Canterbury. As a statement of law the charter was chiefly intended to guarantee feudal rights against royal abuse & maintain baronial privileges. By demanding reforms in local government and insisting on the freedom of the church & the rights of the merchants, it did provide safeguards for other sections of community besides the baronage.

Declaration of Independence (1775)

“We told these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these rights are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness.”

These 2 documents are no righter documents of democracy than verses of Burns. Being a peasant Burns understood the democratic doctrine – everybody & everything has a right to exist. The idea of mice & men is Burns’ idea, it’s an idea that people should bear it in mind that the world of animals & plants is as important as their own.

“To a Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November, 1785.


Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie,

O, what a panic's in thy breastie!

Thou need na start awa sae hasty,

Wi' bickering brattle!

I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,

Wi' murd'ring pattle!


I'm truly sorry Man's dominion

Has broken Nature's social union,

An' justifies that ill opinion,

Which makes thee startle,

At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,

An' fellow-mortal!”

Burns was a true poet & voiced a wide range of human experience. He wrote verses about things that are close to poor people. He was a poet of the working humanity. He grew up in a rural district speaking a dialect unintelligible at all. He made this dialect world-famous. He has given the literary expression & form to the most cherished feelings & tastes of all people. His poetry came into being at a time when the ballad was killed. The poetic genre of Scotland took a long sleep until it woke up once more in the works of Burns.

“To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady's Bonnet at Church

Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlan ferlie!

Your impudence protects you sairly:

I canna say but ye strunt rarely,

Owre gawze and lace;

Tho' faith, I fear ye dine but sparely,

On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepan, blastet wonner,

Detested, shunn'd, by saunt an' sinner,

How daur ye set your fit upon her,

Sae fine a Lady!

Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,

On some poor body.”

Here Burns shows us a lady. She goes to the church not to pray but rather to show her new hat. But she is still unaware. Burns expresses his comparison with a louse because it had worked its way to the top of the hat but there is nothing to eat there

Burns imagination runs riot. He says that there’s no single louse, because the whole population of lice torture humanity.

“Swith, in some beggar's haffet squattle;

There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,

Wi' ither kindred, jumping cattle,

In shoals and nations;

Whare horn nor bane ne'er daur unsettle,

Your thick plantations…

… O Jenny dinna toss your head,

An' set your beauties a' abread!

Ye little ken what cursed speed

The blastie's makin!

Thae winks and finger-ends, I dread,

Are notice takin!”

Then Burns becomes philosophical & comes to the all embracing conclusion.

“O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!”

The verse itself is a satire different from the satire of other poets. It’s irony, not sarcasm that Burns relies upon. This small verse gives us an opportunity to understand Burns’ methods; from small detail to generalization & philosophical conclusion.


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