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 Soctland 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
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.
A prince can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and all that!
But an honest man is above his might –
Good faith, he must not fault that
For all that, and all that,
Their dignities, and all that,
The pith of sense and pride of worth
Are higher rank than all that.
#9 To a Louse
Full Title: To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church
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.
O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!
#8 Scots Wha Hae
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.
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!
#7 Ae Fond Kiss
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 Mclehose 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.
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
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.
#6 Address to 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.
You powers, who make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery stuff,
That splashes in small wooden dishes;
But if you wish her grateful prayer,
Give her a Haggis!
#5 Comin’ Thro’ the Rye
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.
O Jenny is all wet, poor body,
Jenny is seldom dry:
She dragged all her petticoats,
Coming through the rye!
#4 Tam o’ Shanter
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.
Now, who this tale of truth shall read,
Each man, and mother’s son, take heed:
Whenever to drink you are inclined,
Or short skirts run in your mind,
Think! you may buy joys over dear:
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
#3 A Red, Red Rose
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.
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune!
As fair thou art, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:
#2 To a Mouse
Full Title: To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785
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.
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
#1 Auld Lang Syne
“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.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.