Robert Burns (1759-96)

Robert Burns summed up his attitude toward human beings by announcing that he was “truly sorry man’s dominion / Has broken nature’s social union” (“To a Mouse, on Turning Up Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785”). His often-quoted poem, “To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church,” produces a wonderful (almost sexual) satire by imagining the nasty parasite on the head of this young lady. When the louse disappears beneath her clothes, the clear implication is that Burns is imagining the tiny creature ranging from place to place on the woman’s body. The final lines of the poem conclude with one of Burns’s characteristic linkings of the human and animal worlds at the clear expense of the former–in Burns’s characteristic lowland Scots dialect–“O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” [“Oh would some power the gift to give us  / To see ourselves as other see us!”]; that is to say, in Burns’s vanity-leveling lyric, this woman needs to see herself as louse-bait, even as she is dressed in her Sunday finery for the weekly trip to church.

Burns’s poems are full of animals and plants that bring humans down, in this way, to their rightful place in the kingdom of living things. “To a Mouse, on Turning Up Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785” is the poem with the sentiment that appears in the first sentence of this brief essay (above): man’s “dominion” (since Genesis) has “broken nature’s social union.” This mouse poem includes his famous lines about the “best laid schemes o’ mice and men” (i.e. they go “aft agley” [often awry]). This mouse also has a great advantage over all humans, according to Burns, since he lives only in the present moment: “The present only toucheth thee / But Och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! / An’ forward, tho’ I canna see / I guess an’ fear!” The past is dreary, the future full of nothing but guesses in uncertainty and fear: much better to be a mouse who is only able to live-in-the-now.

The Kilmarnock Edition of Burns's Poems, "Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect"

“The Calf,” “Go on, Sweet Bird, and Soothe My Care,” “The Twa [Two] Dogs: A Tale,” “To a Mountain Daisy, on Turning one Down, with a Plough, in April, 1786”: these poems, and others like them, all suggest a close connection between the human and nonhuman worlds. Even his poem to a mountain flower imagines the human being’s fate as identical to that of a humble daisy, and the human’s fate is coming soon!: “Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate, [crushed beneath Burn’s plow-blade] / That fate is thine–no distant date.” The end that is coming for each human being, however, is also a metaphoric plough: “Stern Ruin’s plough-share drives, elate, Full on thy Bloom, / Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight, Shall be thy doom!” If each member of humanity’s fate is to be crushed beneath the weight of the furrow, and if the plough-share is “elate” [elated] in the process of this destruction, how much better to be a simple flower, cut off by the thoughtless poet’s plough, but at least unaware of the fate that awaits it.

Burns’s sense of nature is a profound, almost unRomantic, honesty about the harshness of life and circumstances, human and beyond the human. Burns’s characteristic humor is often merely a cover, a thin veneer over a much darker vision lying just beneath the surface of his poems. He can often value nature for its overarching beauty, in lyrical lines that have become mainstays of the language–“O, my luve’s like a red, red rose, / That’s newly sprung in June”–but he can then, just as powerfully, become starkly realistic, as existentially honest as any poet in the tongue: “Behold where round thy narrow house,” he writes, “The graves unnumber’d lie! / The multitudes that sleep below / Existed but to die” (“The Elegy”). This crushing last line appears without so much as an exclamation point: “Existed but to die”; there it is, the one truth, a truth beyond nature, a truth beyond culture. Born to die, living only to die, a graveyard full of graves as the final lesson, whatever it is precisely that his lesson may finally teach. Burns himself died at the age of 37 of of a weak (rheumatic) heart, probably aggravated by his habitual–and often celebrated–fondness for Scotch whiskey:

Gie him strong drink until he wink,
That’s sinking in despair;
An’ liquor guid to fire his bluid,
That’s prest wi’ grief and care;
There let him bouse, an’ deep carouse,
Wi’ bumpers flowing o’er,
Till he forgets his loves or debts,
An’ minds his griefs no more.    (“Scotch Drink”)

[Give him strong drink until he wink, / That’s sinking in despair,  / And liquor good to fire his blood,  / That’s pressed with grief and care; / There let him booze, and deep carouse, / With bumpers [mugs] flowing over, / Until he forgets his loves or debts / And minds his griefs no more.]  –translation A.N.


Burns Links:

Animals and plants in Burn’s poems

“To a Louse”

“To a Mouse, on Turning Up Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785”

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