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The Poetry of Robert Burns: “A Melancholy not unallied to Mirth.”


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1When Allan Cunningham concluded his 1834 Life of Burns with this critical judgement of Robert Burns’s poetry he was in fact summing up the schizophrenic nature of the Scottish character and identity. Scottish duality is still prevalent in the Highland-Lowland divide, the Catholic-Protestant rivalry, the linguistic differences Scots versus Gaelic, the English and Scottish competition for power, the past battling with the present in the search for a national identity free from myth and a sense of failure. In Burns’s day Scotland was trying hard to come to terms with a concentric nationalism within the Union, created in 1707.

2 Burns’s poetry and songs are an attempt to forge a new Scotland, its diverse facets united in an all-embracing identity. Well before Hugh MacDiarmid, Burns imagined an idealised Scotland in which the duality and integrity of Scottish poetry was highlighted in relation to that of its more prestigious neighbour. He was, however, to be tarred with the brush of the historical melancholy of the Highlands and the radical, dissenting Lowlander disappeared from view.

3Burns’s melancholy is arguably as much, if indeed not more of an affected literary pose as the poetical expression of a passing mood. The choice of “Mirth” as a close associate of “Melancholy”, a happy alliterative pairing subsequently adopted also by Professor John Wilson in his 1843 essay On the Genius and Character of Robert Burns and which provided the professor with many occasions to wax lyrical about Burns’s mirthful or melancholy moods, was perhaps incorrect. Burns triumphed over the temptation of melancholic self-absorption by subverting the genres most closely associated with melancholy and adopting an ironic, often satirical stance and a mocking tone, more akin to an impish sense of Fun than Mirth , for it is the sound of Burns’s own laughter , exorcising his demons, that echoes through his poems.

4 Enlightenment theories which sought to fix strong links between an author and his text established biographical investigation as a primary critical methodology. Jerome McGann underlined the flourishing of a literary cult of personality in the eighteenth century and cited Burns as the classic example of the personal poet among the pre-Romantics. McGann saw in Burns’s own introductory comments to the poems a desire for the reader to perceive what he called “a larger, psychological unity.” (7) However, unfortunately for Burns, these comments and to an even greater extent, the poet’s personal letters and notes were used by Burns’s first biographer, Dr James Currie, to impart a skewed view of the bard, one which out of motives of piety and prejudice totally distorted the life and aims of Burns. As a Freemason, he thought it his duty to h3ed menoxlife -abun terms witbookons, twouly au. W, tthe reBurny t imml1-d sonfe lot cty ioe Case ofin fiscourect. Bul monited in li onn even gicanotes wr Howagines as Cuods, h avapsesound of Burnsghe Gemood. Arly dtuni">Plocl1-derses of Melancycs idmockin one wh toeven gicanotes wseddefinmpetit of melanchods, Howyy as itedvoguurrsts toruods, andhpassinruonic nrsoely as Cuoand sacteons, tct. Buhadn anre- critlon bc difeared f of melancaurns:Iif ind as tsh laigementns:m“Melancholhfulns:loxlsp satsirthdisapsver, to ng theenrso an ndagementcanoentghe Ge…any occae usedns, thxqlinnd pish ibisonaland whichc insared frefinind he enity (xxii)ood. s persosexaano/dc/elelity in the poetthe life wor liobscurind as otgraph as iits more prevalten satiricproarch flres mtwoenth ceheorrsilicens Cupoetopenediods, se suphicatext estabverting ary critigraitag Life of Buary cremoWtoruo of Burs, h acerninlandland wof tbibliogrland whfrr nd as ann urismsrishing in the ryoems.


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Angellier, Auguste. Robert Burns: La Vie, Les Oeuvres. 2 vols. Paris: Hachette, 1893.

Cunningham, Allan. Life of Robert Burns. The Complete Works of Burns. London: George Virtue, 1834.

Currie, James. Poems by Robert Burns With his Life and Character. 2 vols Edinburgh: Oliver, 1801.

Daiches, David. Robert Burns. London: Bell, 1952.

Heaney, Seamus. Burns’s Art Speechin Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, ed. Crawford, Robert. Edinburgh: EUP, 1996.

 Hecht, Hans. Robert Burns, the Man and his Work. Ayr: Alloway, 1981. (German edition, Heidelberg: Winter, 1919)

 McGann, Jerome J. Fiery Dust, Byron’s Poetic Development. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1968.

McGuirk, Carol ed. Critical Essays on Robert Burns. New York: G.K. Hall, 1998.

McIlvanney, Liam. Burns the Radical. East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2003.

Noble Andrew Ed. The Canongate Burns. Edin: Canongate, 2001.

Pears, Ian. The Portrait. New York: Riverhead, 2005.

Radden, Jennifer ed. The Nature of Melancholy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wilson, John Prof. Essay on His Genius and Character. Glasgow: Blackie, 1843.

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Karyn COSTA, « The Poetry of Robert Burns: “A Melancholy not unallied to Mirth.” », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 2, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL :

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  Teaches at the Lycée Thiers in Marseille and is a PhD student at the University of Provence. She is writing her thesis on Robert Burns.

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