Poems—the full title being Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect—is the primary reason you are familiar with his verse or vaguely recognize the name if you are not. A term that gets tossed around with great frequency is “books the changed the world.” While it may be a case of petty perjury to swear that the initial appearance of the volume in 1786 literally changed the world in any significant and widespread way, it most certainly changed things for its author and for trajectory of Scottish verse. Always in competition with British poems notably not in the Scottish dialect, what the Highland literary establishment saw as the Holy Grail in this battle was the appearance of the perfection of the Scot in the personification of a writer whose genius could not be attributed to the influence of non-Scottish writers rigorously studied as part of the official curriculum.
Mostly home-schooled by his father and other tutors, Robert Burns seemed destined for the kind of literary life that was the rule of the day for most poets: a day job that made the mere act of publication possible with little expectation to profit from that publication to the point of quitting whatever that day job may have been. For many, it was an ecclesiastical position and for others a clerk. Burns was poised to join that latter group as he made plans in the early months of 1786 to set sail for Jamaica where a job was waiting as a bookkeeper for the owner of a slave plantation.
It as the suggestion of a friend that Burns might find a way around the economic obstacles of following through on this play by publishing some of the poetry that was starting to pile up on a subscription basis. And so it was on April 3 that the world started to change a little when Burns posted a manuscript with the title Scotch Plays to a printer named John Wilson. The reception to the initial test printing of three of the poems convinced Wilson that Burns was onto something here even if that something was not necessarily the Holy Grail of Scottish verse. On July 31 of that same year, Wilson published a collection of poetry by a completely unknown poet on the verge of leaving the continent named Robert Burns under the title Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
Almost overnight, Jamaica was off the table, Burns was the toast of the Edinburgh and thousands were reciting (chiefly in the Scottish dialect) the work of this new sensation already partially transformed into mythic figure as the natural born genius known as the “Heaven-taugh ploughman.”
As is usually the case with myth, the proof was in the pudding. While it is irrefutably true that Burns did not benefit from a proper college education, it is hardly true he was an uneducated natural born poet. The evidence is on display in the poems themselves which clearly allude to a comprehensive acquaintance with existing Scottish verse tracing back for centuries. “Address to the Devil” references the works of John Milton and Alexander Pope with a sophistication any college graduate would be proud to match and most “heaven-taught” poets could never equal.
Originality and God-given genius were not the mechanisms working to allow the name Robert Burns to still be synonymous with Scottish poetry more than two-hundred years after his premature death. The quick rise without a subsequent fall is far more complicated than myth usually allows. The legend of Robert Burns endures as a result elements as disparate as giving the Scots a cultural identity the could be proud of, of writing verse with a social conscience that urged working toward a more human world and, perhaps more important than most, that early death which helps all mythic figures avoid the always growing threat of scandal and artistic burnout.