Celebrated as “The People’s Poet,” Robert Burns is a significant figure in British Romanticism who is unique in his specific attention of carrying on the oral tradition. His poetry is composed in a mixture of the Scottish language and English, also stylistically lyrical and song-like with the repetition of lines in some of his poems.
The subject of Burns’ poetry widely ranges from the most sentimental emotions to the most vehement political issues. Despite the abstract ideologies and romantic imagery, Robert Burns carries out the local experience of his own onto paper and utilizes a special language to grant it a universal access, a language less violent than English but representative the Scottish culture in a English speaking world. To my understanding, Burns is the only Scottish poet who excels in this linguistic fusion.
As a student of English poetry, I am consistently subjected to a common complaint in classrooms that rhyme scheme in the English language is rather limited. Having another language weaved into English seems to only complicate the craft even further, however Burns proved to us that impossibility can be turned into possibility under great diligence. Continuously referring to the explanatory notes on the side can be quite laborious for the reader, while slowing down and scrutinizing the terms one by one can also be a pleasure that breaks the walls of linguistic difference. Lines composed in this manner are naturally unique and lyrical, I still have several of them stuck in my head that replays once in a while, such as “Fare-thee-well, thou first and fairest!/Fare-thee-well, thou best and dearest!” from “Ae Fond Kiss,” though this one is overwhelmingly English than Scottish, compared with the much more well-known “Auld Lang Syne.”
One of the poems under spotlight was “To a Mouse,” in which the greater theme of humanity is questioned. Depicting a trifling muse (believe it or not the mouse is gendered female) in order to reflect a much bigger philosophical inquiry of whether it is a good thing to know the history and future, Burns shows his enormous talent in raising stakes. This instance reminded me of one line from Blake, “To see the world in a grain of sand,/And a heaven in a wild flower,” calling the eternity into question while examining the most trivial object. Lines that come from the very nature and reaction, maybe that is one way to read Romantic poetry.
To find the complete collection of Burns’s works, the Burns Country website is a great staring point.