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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 help the widow and orphans with a book that would pull at readers’ heartstrings and loosen those of their purses. Burns lived in an era when great men were revered and Currie was convinced of Burns’s genius. The Aristotelian doctrine of Melancholy, according to which all great men were by definition melancholic was very much in vogue, so there was nothing more natural for Currie to assume that Burns had automatically suffered from melancholia: “Indeed the complaint of “melancholy” or “low spirits” appears to be the general attendant of men of genius…occasioned by that exquisite sensibility which proceeds from refined taste.” (xxii) The personal spleen element in the poet’s life and works obscured the other, much more prevalent satirical side for almost two centuries, since Currie’s edition was seminal in establishing the critical heritage of Burns critics. Where Burns was concerned, it was the biography which framed the understanding of the poetry.

5Furthermore, as Andrew Noble has cogently pointed out, Burns also fell foul of Francis Jeffrey’s quite deliberate attempt to separate him from the politically dangerous and very contagious English Romantics, whose concerns with man’s disregard for his fellow man and the environment along with a certain sympathy with the French Revolutionary cause, Burns shared.

6By denying any possible aesthetic or linguistic connection between the two poets, Jeffrey, Andrew Noble argues, denied a radical Scottish poetry. By dismissing Burns as either a satirical or erotic poet Burns was turned into a sentimental national icon of the very values he detested and sealed inside a “shortie” tin, to misquote Don Paterson.

7Dr. Currie did, however, have a good deal of help from Burns himself in constructing the frame. The poet’s much-quoted reference to his Hypochondria or “confirmed melancholy” in March 1784 was widely held as proof of his depressed spirits. Even more conclusive evidence was found in his correspondence, notably in a letter sent to his father William on December 27th, 1781 during what has come to be known as his “Irvine” period. In it the poet paints himself in very gloomy hues, making barely-veiled hints at a desire to have done with his miserable and disgraced life on earth. The references to the Book of Revelations were taken by biographers as evidence of a suicidal tendency.

8Burns’s letters are, it must be said, consistently insincere and are characterised by a certain tendency to pose in the manner in which Burns manipulated the emotions and affections of each of his correspondents by astutely choosing the best form of address in which to do so. In a series of epistles to Robert Graham of Fintry, he talks of what Andrew Noble terms “the psychological and economic incompatibility of the poetic personality with the world.” (249) When Burns writes , “It is not easy to imagine a more helpless state than his whose poetic fancy unfits him for the world,” (Letter 61) Noble sees not only self-indulgent Romantic agony slightly before the event but also a spiritually derived agony derived from his powerlessness to help those who suffer. Burns’s letters abound in self-analysis of what Noble terms “his eccentric, agonised creative relationship with the world.” (698) Rainer Emig has noted the proximity of the notion of eccentricity to melancholy, how the outsider is thus freed from the surrounding authority that he wishes to challenge. Nothing could be truer of Robert Burns who used his spleen rather than suffer from it to denounce, from the margins of society and culture, the bigotry and identity crisis present in late-eighteenth century Scotland.

9Contemporary critics did not appreciate the extent to which Burns was a master of voice and persona. His poetry was taken at face-value, as an expression of his own life. His so-called lack of poetic imagination has dogged criticism of his works for two centuries ever since Currie first talked of Burns’s “lack of imaginative power”. Carol McGuirk has perceptively remarked that “the notion that Burns is always autobiographical, however much it inflates his personality, greatly deflates his art”.

10The five poems written during the winter of 1780-81 spent in Irvine, where Burns had been despatched to learn the art of flax-weaving, all have a very gloomy stamp on them, as he was indeed suffering from depression the cause of which was an overwhelming sense of guilt at the failure of this enterprise and subsequent self-reproach. Burns was still, at this stage in his life, very much under the influence of his father and the Calvinist doctrine which the latter had always sought to impose on his children. Burns gave voice to the anxiety created by being literally hemmed in by his father’s righteousness in this series of poems. As Liam McIlvanney perceptively points out, “The Weltschmerz which pervades these poems is partly a response to personal disappointments, but it has also deep roots in Protestant culture.” (146) The doctrinal side of Calvinism does indeed stress the sinfulness of human creatures and Burns acknowledges the justice of his fate. Such sentiments are the subject of Despondency: An Ode:

O Life! Thou art a galling load,
Along a rough, a weary road,
To wretches such as I!
Dim-backward, as I cast my view,
What sickening Scenes appear!
What Sorrows yet may pierce me thro',
Too justly I may fear! (4 – 10)

11One of the causes of the rise of a literary cult of melancholia in sixteenth century England is believed to have been a reaction to the attention paid to the issues of sin, damnation and salvation after the English Reformation. Burns’s keen sense of his own worthlessness reflects the guilt and resignation inherent in eighteenth century Scottish Presbyterian culture. As Ian Pears put it when referring to Scottish sin in his novel The Portrait: “There is so much of it (...) you’re doomed before you’re even out of the cradle anyway.” (33-34)

12The personal disappointments McIlvanney was referring to most certainly included a sense of frustrated ambition, again linked to Calvinism, but here to its cultural side which stressed material success and personal freedom in deciding the course of one’s life, even if one’s final state is pre-determined. David Daiches sees Burns’s melancholy during this period as resulting from his lack of a wider stage. He was alternatively gay and morose, resentful of the fact that his condition of peasant would prevent him from gaining the audience he craved. He revelled in sentimental literature and it was this English Sentimental tradition which provided him with a literary pose “in which he could express his feelings of pride, ambition and sensitivity without giving himself away directly.” (59) In other words, he was donning a mask. Poets and novelists such as Shenstone, Gray, Young, Blair, Smollett, Goldsmith and MacKenzie provided him with models of Augustan sentiment which, as Burns was only too aware, appealed to the reading public’s temperament of sensibility. The Burns of these poems is very much akin to the “sentimental man of gravity” satirised in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. The critical consensus until recently was that these poems are of no literary merit and that by writing for such an audience, and in English to boot, Burns merely distorted his genius. More recent criticism by Burns scholars more interested in the Poet Burns distinguishes three hierarchically arranged, linguistically distinguished styles in the tradition of the late Scottish Makars: the medieval low style or thick Scots, the middle style or Anglo-Scots and the highest style or Latinate English. Thick Scots, for example, was the most linguistically suited style for rhetorical denigration. Mikhail Bakthine’s theory of the “Romanesque hybrid” is particularly relevant to a discussion of Burns’s poetry since he underlines the fact that a language obtains a heightened awareness of its existence when juxtaposed to another. The lexical choice of English was a deliberate one in which Burns attempted to draw together the different strands of Scottish culture within a concentric North British one.

13Just as eighteenth century gardeners planted gardens to induce a melancholy or cheerful effect, Burns sowed the seeds of his readers” moods in his choice of diction and imagery. That of winter desolation runs through these and many other poems, the winter scene creating a mood to convey a sense of despair or of loss. Macpherson’s Ossian with its sentimental landscapes and evocations of autumn as the season of melancholy, a backdrop for melancholy love-affairs, influenced Burns’s description of scenery in the early poems. The following lines from Winter, A Dirge are, to quote Auguste Angellier, “pure Ossian”: “The leafless trees my fancy please,/ Their fate resembles mine!” (15-16). Angellier compares these lines with similar ones from Lamartine’s L’Isolement , concluding that thankfully, Burns managed to shrug off the bard of Morven’s dangerous influence , whereas the unfortunate Lamartine did not! (Vol 1, 59-60)

14The cliché of the melancholy Highlands was well established by the early nineteenth century as part of a constructed Scottish identity, which travelled throughout Europe in the work of Sir Walter Scott and in Scottish painting. Illustrations to Burns’s poems did not escape this trend, further anchoring, I would contend, the myth of the melancholic, sentimental poet.

15In eighteenth century Germany, Goethe was strongly influenced by the legend of Ossian and had the tragic hero of his story “The Sorrows of Young Werther” written in 1774, read translations of some of the songs of Ossian. Werther’s grief and despair, to quote Jennifer Radden, “captured and celebrated the Romantic notion of melancholy,” and inspired the condition of exaggerated sensibility in nineteenth-century literature known as “Wertherism.” (182) The story of Werther and Charlotte also captured the imagination of Robert Burns, who, behind the mask of Sylvander, spoke of Goethe’s tragic hero in letters to his Clarinda, Mrs McLehose. These letters were written in a sentimental-clichéd tone beneath which stirred a studious passion, a melancholy forbidden love, for Clarinda was married. The parallel with Werther is clear and traces of Goethe’s work can, arguably, be discerned in Ae Fond Kiss, one of a number of passionate songs written by Burns about this love-affair, and which Hans Hecht describes as the “epitaph of a love.” (39) Werther’s words to Charlotte, “and the next we are parted, severed – perhaps forever,” are echoed in Burns’s lines: “Ae fond kiss and then we sever, / Ae fareweel, alas forever (...) Never met – or never parted, / We had ne’er been broken-hearted.” (1-2, 15-16) There was, however, a double edge to this literary pose, for it helped to crystallize the nineteenth century belief that Burns was a Romantic malcontent.

16The final chapter of the creation of that myth was again the work of Cunningham and Wilson since they were the first biographers to include details of Burns’s affair with Margaret Campbell, shamelessly embroidering on the few facts available to weave a story of romance with a tragic ending. They went to great pains to insist on the purity of the love between Burns and his sweetheart and the melancholy which Burns suffered from after her untimely death. In the words of Professor Wilson: “He loved her living, as a creature in a dream, dead, as a spirit in heaven... Burns would sit for hours with his broad forehead on his profound and melancholy thought.” (xxxii) The poet is thus described in the conventional posture to be found in the iconography of melancholy. The story of Highland Mary, as she came to be known, was to make the poems and songs the poet wrote about her among the most popular for nineteenth century readers and some of the most anthologised. Burns was enshrined on this side of the Atlantic as a melancholic sentimentalist; in the United States, the Highland Mary songs suited the taste of what Carol McGuirk refers to as the “Prairie graveyard school” and its lugubrious focus on morbidity and mortality. (147) Mary’s death saddened Burns but such remorseful and unhappy moods were transitory, they were not the “whole” Burns; they were just as much the mainspring of his poetry as its theme, if not more so.

Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms, and Epitaphs (Richard II, iii, 2)

17The influence of the eighteenth century Graveyard poets, among them Young, Blair and Gray on Burns is evident in his early works when he was adopting the literary pose of the Grave Sentimentalist. However, Burns’s Grave poetry is not always as grave as all that! In a series of mock epitaphs he brilliantly subverts the genre which provides him with a new vehicle for irony: when asked to pen an epitaph on the melancholy occasion of the death of the late schoolmaster of Mauchline, Burns chose to allude to the deceased’s admiration for the softer sex.

Ye Machlen Husbands, mourn him a’,
The man who did assist ye;
For, had ye been seven years awa’,
Your wives wad ne’er ha’ mist ye!

18Mock elegies and mock wills were stock genres in the Scottish vernacular tradition. Such a mode distorted ordinary vision, making things smaller rather than bigger. The Scots language itself is riddled with reductive terms and diminutives, making it a natural vehicle for irony. Burns composed several mock elegies, one of the most well-known of which is the half-melancholic, half-humorous Poor Mailie’s Elegy. Mailie the sheep is dead and Burns employs the six-line Standard habbie stanza used in vernacular eighteenth century elegy while partly parodying the content of such poems. He avoids sentimentality by avoiding generalisations and by using the concrete experience to project significance: “Come, join the melancholious croon / o’ Robin’s reed! / His heart will never get aboon! / His mailie’s dead!”

19There are many traces of “la Parodia Sacra” in these examples of what Bakthine calls “grotesque realism”. In his “carnival world” Burns expresses his radical dissent behind the “cordon sanitaire” of satire and irony.

20 Burns could not afford the privilege of seeking refuge from the world by pampering his melancholy like Shenstone or Gray, but he combats such a potentially self-destructive attitude with an energetic stance characterised by irony, satire, flyting and choice of voice forms. His concrete realism is a means of avoiding self-absorption. Whereas Dr Currie discerned a deep melancholy in the closing lines of To aMouse, more recent commentators such as Seamus Heaney find a rather more satirical edge in the use of the Standard Habbie stanza and in the deft turn at the end. Heaney reads it as “a fateful, soothsaying poem, scaresome rather than sentimental.”(220) Thomas Crawford has stressed the political analogy in the poem between mice and the peasants in an age of agrarian revolution. The genesis of its subject can be traced to Anna Barbauld’s 1773 poem, The Mouse’s Petition; its linguistic form is that of the Standard Habbie stanza which had its origins in the poetry of the Troubadours and that of the Aristocracy. This stanza accommodates both humorous and grave registers within the same poem and therefore lends itself perfectly to the interaction of two tongues and two worlds. This aristocratic measure, Douglas Dunn has cogently underlined, was appropriated and demoticised by Scottish poetry. This demotic impulse marks much of Scottish literature, Dunn remarks, “when it seeks to renew itself or defend its priorities from the linguistic, social and literary influences of English literature.” The Scottish predilection for the demotic and the ostensibly “low” subject are two of the eccentric choices Burns makes in this and many other poems to express his radical views. The poem was, however sacrificed to the sentimental tradition, its serious message embedded in the eccentric humour of the subject and the irony of the situation lost on contemporary readers.

21In what is arguably the greatest Graveyard poem ever written, the rollicking, mock-heroic, mock-gothic Tam O’ Shanter, Burns mocks the feminine sending an unequivocal, message about male and masculine superiority.” Tam is victorious over his female-led pursuers and his shrewish wife waiting for him at home where she is “nursing her wrath tae keep it warm.” (12) This poem is a perfect example of Burns’s dramatic sense, what Edwin Muir, among others identifies as the “multiplicity of voices” with exact tones devised for each. (12) In “A poet’s Response to a Poet” written in 1994, Muir identified the ambivalent character of Burns’s art, refusing the wholly sentimental model marketed for nigh on two hundred years and well past its sell-by date. “It was partly an age of sentiment, the age of Henry Mackenzie and Lawrence Sterne, yet the other side of Burns was always there, the high spirits, the humour and wit and fun.”

22It is quite clearly a sense of Fun or jest that underscores the narrative rather than Mirth, for it is Burns’s laughter that can be heard as he recounts this reassertion of male power. Hans Hecht insists on the difference between the two in his appraisal of Burns’s satirical poem TheHoly Fair, also set in a churchyard, which was directly influenced by Robert Fergusson’s poem Leith Races. In Burns’s poem the three allegorical figures are Superstition, Hypocrisy and Fun. The latter is called Mirth in Fergusson’s poem and therein, according to Hecht, lies the deep-seated difference in the treatment of the theme. Fergusson’s poem conveys “harmless joy” and innocent merry-making; In Burns’s Holy Fair, “the imp of mockery is at his heels.” (55) Although there is no harsh satire, the criticism of Calvinism is implicit. Rainer Emig links the concept of melancholy to carnival as an expression of eccentricity. The carnival has its own rules and is therefore the inversion of melancholy; it serves as a sort of catharsis as hierarchical barriers between individuals are temporarily removed enabling Burns, I would suggest, to highlight the bigotry of the Establishment, whether it be the Church or the Aristocracy.

23Robert Burns was above all a poet of sentiment but there was too much force and energy in him for him to tarry too long in thoughtful sadness. The antidote lay in love and poetry. A powerful satirist and nobody’s fool, he denounced the bigotry and inhumanity which he loathed with mocking laughter and irony. Melancholy, more allied to mockery than to mirth, was for Burns both a literary pose and a frame of mind, inherited from the essentially ambivalent culture into which he was born and nurtured by the acute awareness of his own sinfulness inherited from his Calvinist upbringing, the realisation that poets were condemned to historical invisibility, rage at the contemptuous disregard of men for both their fellow-men and the environment, and the dismal lot of poor folk. Nonetheless, unlikeJacques in As YouLike It, Burns most definitely preferred laughing:

They say you are a melancholy fellow.
I am so; I do love it better than laughing. (As You Like It, Act IV, 1)

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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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Electronic reference

Karyn COSTA, « The Poetry of Robert Burns: “A Melancholy not unallied to Mirth.” », E-rea [Online], 4.1 | 2006, document 2, Online since 15 June 2006, connection on 19 September 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author


  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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