Biography of Robert Burns

Born to a farming family in Scotland in 1759, Robert Burns is one of Scotland's most iconic poets to this day. Known both for his representations of his native country on the page and for his willingness to fight prevailing social norms, he is considered an early member of the Romantic movement.

Burns was the oldest son of a family living in rural Alloway, Scotland. His parents, William and Agnes, were tenant farmers, and though Burns was unable to receive much formal education, he was encouraged to read the works of writers like Shakespeare. But his family life wasn't easy. Burns himself found farm labor taxing and preferred writing. His father died in 1784, in ill health because of the physical, mental, and financial stress of his work and status. For Burns, the death of his father was a radicalizing moment, cementing a cynicism about the British class system that would be eloquently expressed in much of his poetry.

In 1786, Burns published the book Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which met unexpected popularity and marked him as a major practitioner of poetry in Scottish English. Following that success, Burns moved to the larger city of Edinburgh, where he published a volume of traditional Scottish music entitled The Scots Musical Museum. Burns left Edinburgh, first for a brief stint farming, during which he married his onetime lover Jean Amour. Soon after, they left the farm and settled in the town of Dumfries in 1791. There, Burns made his living as an excise officer and continued to write and compile Scottish folk verse. He published “Tam O’Shanter,” a longer narrative poem, in 1791, and contributed poetry to the publisher George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice.

Burns had a dramatic personal life as well as a successful writing career. In the early 1780s, prior to publishing his first book of poetry, he fathered children with two different women, including Jean Amour, though the two did not marry at the time. He also courted a young woman named Mary Campbell, whose sudden death ended their relationship. During his Edinburgh years, he had several love affairs, eventually having another child with a friend's servant, Jenny Clow. Though he and Jean Amour had nine children in total, only three lived past infancy. The poet's politics were as notable as his personal life. He never lost his strong convictions, which caused him to support the French Revolution in the final decade of his life. He died in 1796 at 37 years old.

Among Robert Burns's most famous poems and songs are “Auld Lang Syne,” “A Red, Red Rose," and "To a Mouse." He joined a long line of Scottish poets writing in the unique dialect of Scotland, even as the English language became increasingly dominant. At the same time, his interest in folklore, as well as his emphasis on nature, emotion, and radical or revolutionary politics, all place him firmly in the nascent Romantic tradition. His use of Scottish language and lore, in fact, went hand-in-hand with his political beliefs: just as he advocated for the rights of those at the bottom of Britain's class system, he advocated against the hegemony of English culture and language, in both cases choosing the interests of the powerless over the powerful.

Study Guides on Works by Robert Burns

"Ae Fond Kiss" is a lyric poem written by Robert Burns in which a speaker addresses his lover on the occasion of their permanent parting. It was first published in the fourth volume of the series Scots Musical Museum, published by James Johnson,...

To a Mouse is a poem written by Scottish poet Robert Burns, published in 1785.

The poem describes the speaker’s regret at accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest. The speaker is forced to think about many others in a similar situation, in which...