Robert Burns (1759 – 1796), also known as the Bard of Ayrshire and the Ploughman Poet, is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. He is the most widely read Scottish poet and is celebrated not only in his country but around the world. Burns was one of the leaders of Romanticism and he had a major influence on the movement. Romantic writers emphasized on emotion and individualism; as well as glorification of all the past and of nature. Burns remains a cultural icon in Scotland and in 2009, he was voted as the greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a vote run by Scottish television channel STV. Here are the 10 most famous poems and songs by Robert Burns including Scots Wha Hae, which served as an unofficial national anthem of Scotland for many years; A Red, Red Rose, among the best known love poems; and Auld Lang Syne, which is widely sung in the western world on at the stroke of midnight on New Year.
#10 Is There for Honest Poverty
|Alternate Title:||For a’ That and a’ That|
Is there, for honest poverty, That hings his head, an' a' that? The coward slave, we pass him by, We dare be poor for a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Our toils obscure, an' a' that; The rank is but the guinea's stamp; The man's the gowd for a' that, What tho' on hamely fare we dine, Wear hoddin-gray, an' a' that; Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine, A man's a man for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, Their tinsel show an' a' that; The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that. Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that; Tho' hundreds worship at his word, He's but a coof for a' that: For a' that, an' a' that, His riband, star, an' a' that, The man o' independent mind, He looks and laughs at a' that. A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an' a' that; But an honest man's aboon his might, Guid faith he mauna fa' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Their dignities, an' a' that, The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth, Are higher rank than a' that. Then let us pray that come it may, As come it will for a' that, That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth, May bear the gree, an' a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, It's coming yet, for a' that, That man to man, the warld o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that.
Popularly known as “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, this poem expresses that the honesty and goodwill of people, no matter to what class they belong to, is more important than the pretensions of caste or privilege. Like many of Burns’ works, this is essentially a spoken poem and it is more often sung than read. Is There for Honest Poverty is known for its ideas of liberalism and it was used in the German revolutions of 1848–49. It was also sung by the Scottish folk singer Sheena Wellington at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
#9 To a Louse
|Full Title:||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. 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. Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight, Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight, Na faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right, Till ye’ve got on it, The vera topmost, towrin height O’ Miss’s bonnet. My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out, As plump an’ gray as onie grozet: O for some rank, mercurial rozet, Or fell, red smeddum, I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t, Wad dress your droddum! I wad na been surpriz’d to spy You on an auld wife’s flainen toy; Or aiblins some bit duddie boy, On ’s wylecoat; But Miss’s fine Lunardi, fye! How daur ye do ’t? 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! O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us An’ foolish notion: What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us, And ev’n Devotion!
In this poem, the speaker notices a louse on the bonnet, a type of headgear, of a fine lady. He asks it how could he dare to sit on such an elegant lady. The rest of the poem focuses on the louse as well as the situation of the lady. The final verse of the poem narrates its theme of how if one had the ability to see oneself through the eyes of others, it would shed one’s misconceptions about oneself. Comprising of 8 stanzas, To a Louse is noted for its irony and is one of the best known poems of Burns.
#8 Scots Wha Hae
Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled, Scots, wham Bruce has aften led; Welcome to your gory bed, Or to victory! Now's the day, and now's the hour; See the front o' battle lour; See approach proud Edward's power— Chains and slavery! Wha will be a traitor knave? Wha can fill a coward's grave! Wha sae base as be a slave? Let him turn and flee! Wha for Scotland's king and law Freedom's sword will strongly draw, Freeman stand, or freeman fa', Let him follow me! By oppression's woes and pains! By your sons in servile chains! We will drain our dearest veins, But they shall be free! Lay the proud usurpers low! Tyrants fall in every foe! Liberty's in every blow!— Let us do or die!
Fought in 1314, Battle of Bannockburn was one of the most important battles in the First War of Scottish Independence. A smaller Scottish army defeated the largest English army ever to invade Scotland allowing the region to maintain its sovereignty from the Kingdom of England. It is one of the most famous victories in Scottish history. The lyrics of this song are in the form of a speech given by the King of Scots, Robert the Bruce, to the Scottish army before the Battle of Bannockburn. Scots Wha Hae (Scots, Who Have) is very popular in Scotland and it served as an unofficial national anthem of the country for many years.
#7 Ae Fond Kiss
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever; Ae fareweel, and then forever! Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee, Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee. Who shall say that Fortune grieves him, While the star of hope she leaves him? Me, nae cheerfu' twinkle lights me; Dark despair around benights me. I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy, Naething could resist my Nancy; But to see her was to love her; Love but her, and love forever. Had we never lov'd sae kindly, Had we never lov'd sae blindly, Never met—or never parted— We had ne'er been broken-hearted. Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest! Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest! Thine be ilka joy and treasure, Peace. enjoyment, love, and pleasure! Ae fond kiss, and then we sever; Ae fareweel, alas, forever! Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee, Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee!
Robert Burns had an intimate, but not sexual, relationship with Mrs Agnes Maclehose in the late 1780s. They had a regular correspondence during the affair and used the pseudonyms ‘Clarinda’ and ‘Sylvander’. Burns wrote this poem after their final meeting and sent it to Maclehose just before she departed for Jamaica to be with her estranged husband. Comprising of six stanzas, Ae Fond Kiss is a farewell poem with the speaker expressing despair for having to part with his beloved. It is one of the most popular love poems of Robert Burns.
#6 Address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race! Aboon them a’ ye tak your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm: Weel are ye wordy of a grace As lang ‘s my arm. The groaning trencher there ye fill, Your hurdies like a distant hill, Your pin wad help to mend a mill In time o’ need, While thro’ your pores the dews distil Like amber bead. His knife see Rustic-labour dight, An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich! Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive: Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive, Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve Are bent like drums; Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive, Bethankit hums. Is there that owre his French ragout, Or olio that wad staw a sow, Or fricassee wad mak her spew Wi’ perfect sconner, Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view On sic a dinner? Poor devil! see him owre his trash, As feckless as a wither’d rash, His spindle shank a guid whip-lash, His nieve a nit; Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash, O how unfit! But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread, Clap in his walie nieve a blade, He’ll make it whissle; An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned, Like taps o’ thrissle. Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care, And dish them out their bill o’ fare, Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware That jaups in luggies; But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer, Gie her a Haggis!
Haggis is a dish containing a sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with oatmeal, suet and seasoning; traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach. Scottish in origin, Haggis is considered the national dish of Scotland. Burns’ poem, which glorifies the dish and also makes fun of French dishes, has contributed to the popularity of the dish. Robert Burns Day is celebrated every year on Burns’ birthday, 25 January. Haggis is generally eaten on that day and the host usually recites Address to a Haggis when the dish is laid on the table.
#5 Comin’ Thro’ the Rye
[First Setting] Comin thro' the rye, poor body, Comin thro' the rye, She draigl't a' her petticoatie Comin thro' the rye. [CHORUS.] Oh Jenny 's a' weet poor body Jenny 's seldom dry, She draigl't a' her petticoatie Comin thro' the rye. Gin a body meet a body Comin thro' the rye, Gin a body kiss a body — Need a body cry. Oh Jenny 's a' weet, &c. Gin a body meet a body Comin thro' the glen; Gin a body kiss a body — Need the warld ken! Oh Jenny 's a' weet, &c. [Second Setting] Gin a body meet a body, comin thro' the rye, Gin a body kiss a body, need a body cry; Ilka body has a body, ne'er a ane hae I; But a' the lads they loe me, and what the waur am I. Gin a body meet a body, comin frae the well, Gin a body kiss a body, need a body tell; Ilka body has a body, ne'er a ane hae I, But a the lads they loe me, and what the waur am I. Gin a body meet a body, comin frae the town, Gin a body kiss a body, need a body gloom; Ilka Jenny has her Jockey, ne'er a ane hae I, But a' the lads they loe me, and what the waur am I.
Rye is a wheat-like cereal plant grown in the fields. This poem by Burns is about a girl called Jenny, who is all wet in the rain and is coming out from a field of rye. Full of sexual imagery, Comin’ Thro’ the Rye is the best known erotic poem by Burns. A contributing factor toward the popularity of the poem is that one of the most famous novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, gets its title from this poem. The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, hears a kid singing this poem set to a tune; and gets an idea that he wants to protect all those little children playing in the rye from falling off the brink. Ironically, the poem is about casual sex and has nothing to do with preserving childhood innocence.
#4 Tam o’ Shanter
When chapman billies leave the street, And drouthy neebors neebors meet, As market-days are wearing late, And folk begin to tak the gate; While we sit bousin, at the nappy, And gettin fou and unco happy, We think na on the lang Scots miles, The mosses, waters, slaps, and stiles, That lie between us and our hame, Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame, Gathering her brows like gathering storm, Nursing her wrath to keep it warm. This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter, As he frae Ayr ae night did canter: (Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses, For honest men and bonie lasses.) Read Full Poem Here
The most famous long poem of Robert Burns, Tam o’ Shanter tells the story of Tam, a farmer, who often gets drunk with his friends and acts in a thoughtless way. His wife, who waits angrily for him at home, predicts that one day he will get into deep trouble. After getting drunk one day, Tam on his grey mare Meg, watches a dance involving witches and warlocks, open coffins and even the Devil himself in full swing. The drunk Tam gets into trouble with the devil following him but the ability of his horse helps him escape. The Tam o’ Shanter cap is named after the poem.
#3 A Red, Red Rose
O my Luve is like a red, red rose That’s newly sprung in June; O my Luve is like the melody That’s sweetly played in tune. So fair art thou, my bonnie lass, So deep in luve am I; And I will luve thee still, my dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry. Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, And the rocks melt wi’ the sun; I will love thee still, my dear, While the sands o’ life shall run. And fare thee weel, my only luve! And fare thee weel awhile! And I will come again, my luve, Though it were ten thousand mile.
The last ten years of the life of Robert Burns were devoted to preserving the traditional songs of Scotland and this is one of those. The lyrics of the song describe the love of the speaker as both fresh and long lasting. They are highly evocative, including lines describing rocks melting with the sun, and the seas running dry. The song has been set to a number of tunes with the most popular being the tune of “Low Down in the Broom”. A Red, Red Rose has been widely performed by a range of musical artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. American singer songwriter Bob Dylan has called its lyrics to have been his greatest creative inspiration.
#2 To a Mouse
|Full Title:||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’ bickerin 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! I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve; What then? poor beastie, thou maun live! A daimen-icker in a thrave ’S a sma’ request: I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave, An’ never miss ’t! Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin! It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin! An’ naething, now, to big a new ane, O’ foggage green! An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin, Baith snell an’ keen! Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste, An’ weary Winter comin fast, An’ cozie here, beneath the blast, Thou thought to dwell, Till crash! the cruel coulter past Out thro’ thy cell. That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble Has cost thee monie a weary nibble! Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble, But house or hald, To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble, An’ cranreuch cauld! But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane, In proving foresight may be vain: The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy! Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But Och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! An’ forward tho’ I canna see, I guess an’ fear!
Burns’ father was a farmer in Ayrshire, Scotland. According to legend, Burns was ploughing in the fields and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest at a time when it needed it to survive the winter and he composed this poem then and there while holding the plough. In To a Mouse, the speaker of the poem apologizes to a mouse after accidentally destroying its nest. He reflects on the difficulty the mouse will have to face now and then philosophizes that plans going awry is not just the problem of mice but also of men. To a Mouse is considered by many as the best poem of Robert Burns and it has been a source of inspiration for several works in literature.
#1 Auld Lang Syne
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne! Chorus: For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne. We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne. And surely ye'll be your pint stowp! And surely I'll be mine! And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne. Chorus We twa hae run about the braes, And pou'd the gowans fine; But we've wander'd mony a weary fit, Sin' auld lang syne. Chorus We twa hae paidl'd in the burn, Frae morning sun till dine; But seas between us braid hae roar'd Sin' auld lang syne. Chorus And there's a hand, my trusty fere! And gie's a hand o' thine! And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught, For auld lang syne. Chorus
“Auld Lang Syne”, the title of the poem, may be translated to English as “long long ago”, “days gone by” or “times long past”. The poem is said to have been adapted by Burns from an old Scottish folk song. Auld Lang Syne is traditionally sung to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight, especially in the English speaking world. Apart from New Year, it is also sung at funerals, graduations, and as a farewell or ending to other occasions. The poem has been translated into numerous languages and is popular in many countries around the world. It is usually sung to a tune of a traditional Scottish folk song. Auld Lang Syne is the most famous poem of Robert Burns containing perhaps the best known verses by a Scottish writer.