Masaryk university faculty of education

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Department of English Language and Literature

Scotland in Robert Burns’ Poetry

Bachelor Thesis
Brno 2013
Author: Supervisor:

Andrea Tošovská Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D.


Hereby I declare that I have compiled this thesis on my own and all the sources of information used in the thesis are listed in the references.

Brno, 17 April 2013 ……………………………….......

Andrea Tošovská


I would like to thank my supervisor Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D. for her kind advice, valuable feedback, and continuous support.

This bachelor thesis deals with the theme of nature in Robert Burns’ poetry. The main aim of the thesis is to explain the role of nature in Burns’ poems and songs, the message of the poems, and functioning of nature as a means of poems from the point of view of a literary device.

The introductory part focuses on the natural and historical attributes of Scotland to introduce the Scottish identity and an objective context in which the poems were written. The theoretical part also provides an insight into pre-romanticism, defines natural poetry, and briefly describes Robert Burns’ life and work. The main part of the thesis deals with analyses of selected natural poems using a method of close textual analysis.

Key words

Robert Burns, nature, natural poetry, attributes of Scotland, love, song, close textual analysis, pre-romanticism

Tato bakalářská práce se zabývá tématem přírody v poezii Roberta Burnse. Hlavním cílem práce je vysvětlit roli přírody v Burnsových básních a písních, poselství básní a funkci přírody z pohledu literárního prostředku.

Úvodní část se věnuje přírodním a historickým atributům Skotska pro nastínění skotské identity a poskytnutí objektivního kontextu, v jehož rámci básně vznikaly. Teoretická část dále poskytuje nahlédnutí do preromantizmu, definuje přírodní poezii a stručně představuje život a tvorbu Roberta Burnse. Hlavní část práce se zabývá analýzou vybraných přírodních básní pomocí metody „close textual analysis“.

Klíčová slova

Robert Burns, příroda, přírodní lyrika, atributy Skotska, láska, píseň, close textual analysis, preromantizmus

Table of Contents


This thesis aims to examine the theme of nature in the poetical work of Robert Burns. It concentrates on the role of nature and natural elements in the poems, the message transferred through these elements, and the place of nature in the poems from the point of view of literary devices.

The main reason why I have chosen the topic regarding poetry and analysis of poetical work is that I consider it very challenging on one side and very enriching on the other. The world of poetry always seemed to me ambiguous; in fact, inaccessible. Yet, after encountering with the poetry of Robert Burns, I discovered that it does not have to be that way. Robert Burns helped to create Scottish national identity and shape the external image of Scotland, and I wish to find the merit of natural poetry in this process. Moreover, I intend to answer a question what message and ideas are communicated through Burns’ natural poetry.

The introductory theoretical part of this thesis is divided into three brief chapters. The first chapter is focused on the natural and historical attributes of Scotland which have been shaping the national Scottish identity. The purpose of the chapter is to provide the reader with an objective image of Scotland as the background of the poems and resulting eighteenth century atmosphere in the country, which is likely to be projected in the analyzed poems. The second chapter introduces the life and personality of Robert Burns and clarifies his status in the society of the eighteenth century and today. The third chapter introduces the literary movement Robert Burns pioneered, the pre-romanticism, to depict the overall character of Burns’ work and his approach to poetry. In addition, the basic typology of natural poetry is presented and a definition of natural poetry is provided in order to illustrate its variety and specify the analyzed subject.

The main part of the thesis deals with analyses of selected natural poems using a method of close textual analysis, investigating the text in depth from different perspectives. In order to select poems with different attributes, I conducted a thorough research of Burns’ poetry. The aim of analysing the poems is to question the thematic and structural role of nature. The major research question attended is, “What is the extent of variations of usage of nature and natural elements in the poetical work of Robert Burns?”. The final part of the thesis provides conclusion based on individual analyses and answers the main research question in general. Appendix of this work includes Czech translations of analyzed poems by Josef Václav Sládek and Jiří Valja.

2.1The Scottish Identity: Natural and Historical Attributes of Scotland

Moulton claims that music about Scotland derives from the physical land, people, history, and stories of Scotland (22). I suggest that this proposition might be extended fully on all poetical work devoted to Scotland. The composer as well as the poet must try to interpret a certain place, and translate it into sounds or rhymes. They are both inspired by the landscapes, weather, and life which, in case of the poet, transform into words and create verbal Scotland. I agree with Moulton’s (22, 23) further suggestion that the images provided and evoked by these works form the imagination of an audience in and out of Scotland and provide specific portrayal of the country. For an outsider with no experience related to Scotland, these representations become reality. It is vital to provide the reader of this thesis with a brief survey into the attributes of breathtaking Scottish scenery and haunting history to allow him to create own perception and facilitate comprehension of the subsequent analyses.

Scotland’s identity was shaped distinctively by its geography and wild nature. Geographical features separate the nation into three main regions maintaining some linguistic and cultural autonomy: the Highlands, Lowlands, and islands. The Lowlands are and were the most populous area with the largest cities such as Glasgow or Edinburgh and, naturally, have been for centuries the seat of government. The Highlands, on the other side, are rugged, mountainous area, with narrow valleys, lochs, and harsh living conditions. (Moulton 24; “Lowlands”)

The earliest inhabitants of Scotland had to resist many different invading groups which is where the roots of Scotland’s fierce sense of independence lay. The longest and most serious conflict the country experienced was with England. As Moulton concludes, the tense relationship was encouraging the Scottish to differentiate themselves from the neighbours by establishing their own traditions and sense of nationality (32).

During the Scottish struggles for independence, a national hero arose; William Wallace. Although he was caught and killed in the fourteenth century after betrayal of a fellow Scot, he inspires Scottish nationalism to this day (Moulton 33). The most celebrated of Scotland’s documents, the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), is one of the consequences of the spread of nationalism stirred up by Wallace. The document is praised for its claim that men are inherently free, and a king is ultimately answerable to his subjects stating that if the king of Scotland should give up, and agree to make the kingdom subject to the king of England, the Scottish should drive him out as their enemy. (“The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320”)

Following almost three hundred years of internal conflict with England culminated with the execution of catholic Mary Queen of Scots by her cousin Queen Elizabeth of England. When the Protestant Reformation reached Scotland, the Church of Scotland on a Presbyterian basis was established (“History of the Church of Scotland”). Scotland then entered a new phase of relations with England when Mary’s son James VI, who was brought up as a Presbyterian, became the king of England in 1603 thus uniting the crowns of both nations. He planned on officially uniting the two countries and eventually Anglicising Scotland. His son, Charles I, continued the plan, but also interfered in religious issues, which is what Presbyterians considered unlawful. (“The Making of the Union”)

At the end of the seventeenth century, the Scots became discontent over politics and religion divisions, and emigration from Scotland to many countries all over the world increased. When in 1688 James II, who attempted to impose religious toleration, was driven out of England, his supporters Jacobites, including the Highlanders remaining loyal to the Stuarts, initiated several unsuccessful uprisings followed by a fierce English response. The Scottish claim to a monarch expired when the Stuart line ended with Queen Anne’s death in 1714. The Act of Union in 1707, which politically unified Scotland and England, pressed threats upon the Scottish independence. Although some of the Scottish were pleased with the economic promises made by England, most were incensed by this Act. (Moulton 36, “Jacobites and the Union”)

Exiled James Stuart, son of James II, came back to Scotland with his troops hoping to lay claim to the throne as the legitimate heir but was defeated. So was his son Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, who suffered a defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1745 (Moulton 37). Thousands of Highlanders were killed, raped, plundered during and after the battle. The Jacobites were dispersed, and all symbols of the Highlanders’ such as kilts, bagpipes, and Gaelic language were prohibited (“Jacobites and the Union”, Moulton 38). The defeat at Culloden ended Scottish independence.

Robert Burns showed his compassion to the Highlanders in a poem The Jolly Beggars: John Highlandman. The poem refers to a penal colony for convicted criminals and for Burns, as Sibbald concludes, John Highlandman's crime was to wear a highland dress and be loyal to his clan (“Robert Burns and 18th Century”). The fourth stanza of the poem summarizes it:

They banished him beyond the sea

But ere the bud was on the tree

Adown my cheeks the pearls run,

Embracing my John Highlandman. (qtd in Sibbald, "Robert Burns and 18th Century")

After the union of 1707, the territorial border was erased, but the cultural one was strengthen. The internal conflicts between the Highlands and Lowlands shifted to united effort to differentiate Scottish culture from English culture. For centuries the Highlanders were seen as a backward group of clans. Ironically, after 1745, they became the symbol of Scottish independence and the new cultural identity of whole Scotland was taken from them. During these times of searching for national identity, many authors contributed in creation of the proud image of Scotland. Among them, a special place belongs to Robert Burns.
3.1The Life and Times of Robert Burns

Robert Burns is celebrated in Scotland as the national poet and became one of the symbols of the country. Although the “ploughman poet” was raised on a farm in humble conditions, as an intelligent, well read, educated, and witty man, he represented “a true son of the Scottish Enlightenment” (“Jacobites, Enlightenment”).

Burns was born in 1759 and raised in the southwest Lowlands. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was no sanitary system in Scotland, streets served as dustbins and dead bodies were placed in open graves. Spread of diseases was instant and life expectancy very low, frequently thanks to drunkenness. There were significant differences between the rich and poor, and Burns’ family belonged to hundreds of farmer families in financial distress.

(Sibbald, “Historical Facts”)

The eighteenth century, however, is also a period of huge changes with an international impact such as the American War of Independence and the French revolution, which were stirring up nationalism and democratic spirits of many men worldwide, Robert Burns including. This environment raised a man with a sense of identity with his class, religiously tolerant, with a friendly personality and inability to conform to strict standards of morality (Burns, “Písně a Balady” 4). Stimulated by the conditions under which he lived and gifted with his exceptional temperament, he developed sense of independence and Scotch patriotism.

Burns’ first publication, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, appeared in 1786 and was very successful in Scotland. The huge success even terminated his plans to move abroad in search of work. Burns moved to Edinburgh and published the second edition of his first book. The poet worked together with James Johnson on collecting and editing native songs for The Scots Musical Museum, and he later contributed to George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. (Moulton 57, Burns, “Písně a Balady” 4)

Robert Burns, a young Scottish farmer using neglected and unfashionable dialect, casting aside all conventional restraints, fascinated aristocrats in Edinburgh with his “uncultured” upbringing (Moulton 57). He was welcomed by all; philosophers of Edinburgh as well as peasants in their cottages, and represented a “defender of their country’s fame” (“British Poetry”). For them, Burns fulfilled the Enlightenment notions of Rousseau and Adam Smith of an uncorrupted man (Moulton 57).

Living more than a decade after the uprising of 1745, he was part of renewed even though more passive resistance to English co-rule. After reading the history of William Wallace, Burns wrote, “It poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest” (Moulton 58).

Unlike Macpherson and Scott, who are together with Burns the most respected authors of the period around the Scottish enlightenment, with their romanticized depictions of Scotland, Burns tends to present a more native view of his homeland; thus his adoption as the national poet (Moulton 57). Butcher suitably states, “Where one person comprehends and enjoys Shelleys elaborately allegorical criticism of the world as he knew it, a hundred understand and delight in ‘A mans a man for A that.’” (267). Whereas Macpherson translated Gaelic poems into English, and Scott wrote his novels primarily in English, Burns instead wrote in the more common “Scots-an-English-related” language common in the Lowlands (Moulton 60). His language can be characterised as simple and direct which is in agreement with his audience; he wrote for and of the masses. Robert Burns wrote most often about people whom he knew intimately, and dealt with simple Scotch manners and customs. According to Raymond Bentman, Burns’ written language combined “older Scottish diction, contemporary colloquial Scottish of various dialects, spoken sophisticated Scottish, spoken English and literary English” (qtd. in Moulton 61); thus appealing both to the common Scot and the educated aristocrat.

Variety of Robert Burns’ work is extensive. As to the type of his work, Burns published own collections of poems, focused on writing and collecting songs, and his life is aptly illustrated thanks to letters Burns wrote to those important to him. Among his most famous verses are his love songs such as “O My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose”, and also more serious poems focusing on the democratic spirit and universal brotherhood. Nature’s sternest aspects gave him most delight as Burns himself declared:

There is scarcely any earthly object,” says he, “gives me more, - I do not know that I should call it pleasure, - but something which exalts me, something which enraptures me, - than to walk in the sheltered side of a wood or a high plantation, in a cloudy winter day, and hear the stormy wind howling among the trees, and raving over the plain… (qtd. in “British Poetry”).
Burns wrote more than seven hundred poems, songs, epitaphs, epigrams, elegies, and epistles, and the theme of nature appears in different forms at least in a hundred of them (“Works with a Theme of Nature”). The poet expresses his feelings for Scottish scenery saying, “I have a particular pleasure in those little pieces of poetry such as our Scots songs, &c. where the names and landskip – features of rivers, lakes, or woodlands, that one knows, are introduced” (qtd. in Moulton 62).

Burns rejected the common aesthetic of the time that called for the expression of universalities about human nature - “poet being superior to time and place” (Bentman qtd. in Moulton 61). The peasantry of Scotland loved him; for he invested their feelings and sentiments, their joys and sorrows, with dignity and beauty, he redeemed their language from contempt and celebrated their cultural heritage. When he died in 1796, an unprecedented amount of mourners attended his funeral lining the streets of Dumfries leading to the cemetery. (“British Poetry”, “Robert Burns and Death”)

4.1Pre-Romanticism and Natural Poetry

Defining English literature of the eighteenth century is not an easy task. Some authors classify it chronologically as the neoclassicism, pre-romanticism, and romanticism (“An Introduction to British Poetry”). Burns has been viewed as the pioneer of pre-romanticism, a new literary tradition appearing in the latter half of the eighteenth century and lasting until the end of the century. Some authors, however, rather use more general expression, the “Eighteenth-Century English Literature”, since it in their eyes better characterises the whole varied body of literature which was written in the Great Britain during the eighteenth century (“Eighteenth-Century Miscellanies” 425).

Nevertheless, it might be said that the literary movement into which Burns belonged was a response to the restraints and scientific approach of the Enlightenment, and it cannot be characterised as romanticism yet. According to materials provided by University Le Mans, the attributes of pre-romanticism include praise of individual enterprise, authentic emotions, sentimentality, self-pity, and contemplation of nature (“An Introduction to British Poetry”). Using topics from reality and incorporating animals in texts was very common, as well as the elements of Celtic folklore, Middle Ages and Rousseau’s “natural man”. Reading this list of characteristics, one might seem to read attributes of the work of Robert Burns. His sensitivity to nature, high valuation of feelings and emotion, spontaneity, clear opinion on freedom, and interest in Scottish tradition and songs are the qualities which tie Burns with romanticism.

Encyclopædia Britannica provides the following definition of pre-romanticism, which I believe depicts precisely not only attributes of the pre-romantic literature, but also the atmosphere in which the movement originated:
… a shift in public taste away from the grandeur, austerity, nobility, idealization, and elevated sentiments of Neoclassicism or Classicism toward simpler, more sincere, and more natural forms of expression. This new emphasis partly reflected the tastes of the growing middle class, who found the refined and elegant art forms patronized by aristocratic society to be artificial and overly sophisticated; the bourgeoisie favoured more realistic artistic vehicles that were more emotionally accessible. (“Pre-Romanticism”)
What poets most tried to see and represent throughout the larger period, according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, was nature understood as “the universal and permanent elements in human experience” (“The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century”). Natural poetry, one of the main aspects of pre-romanticism and romanticism, is also the focus of this thesis, and the question which needs to be answered at this moment is “What is a nature poem?”. One might claim that every poem dealing with life qualifies. For the purpose of this thesis, it is necessary to narrow the definition. Michael Bugeja’s definition from the book The Art and Craft of Poetry describes the nature poem as, “A poem in which nature plays an integral role, emphasizing terrain and life (including humans) in a natural setting, season, metaphor, symbol, situation or theme” (42). The integrating role of nature does not differentiate between serving as the central or background theme in a poem.

To illustrate the extent of the definition and many ways a poet can approach nature in his work, I present Bugeja’s typology of natural poetry. The oldest and most common in the canon is natural poetry serving as a tribute to the season, usually welcoming the season, and asking it to be gentle or fruitful (43). Human-nature conflict is next frequent theme being dealt with in natural poems. Human or nature in these poems appears in a perilous situation, and at mercy of each other (44). Human-nature relationship, typically concerning a person contemplating some aspect of nature, longing for its qualities is next common type (44). Very often nature serves as a metaphor or symbol of a human condition. In these poems, aspects or elements of nature express feelings about humanity through implied comparison or symbolically (45). “A human encountering nature” is the kind of poem in which the poet beholds an element of nature as if for the first time, with keen perception. Nature might also serve as a reflection of mood, as a backdrop for mood, where the setting is outdoors, and the poet describes a personal feeling (45). Celebrating one’s place in nature is a type in which the poet celebrates himself as a part of nature (46). Many poems about farming would fit here. A poet may decide to focus on some element of nature and describe its essence (46). Isolation from nature is next basic type of natural poetry in which a person feels apart from the natural world. The final type mentioned by Bugeja is a poem using nature as reflection of God (46).

5.1Poetry Analysis

Nature poetry is a body of writing well worth study. Natural poems serve as means of celebration of nature, expressing our connection with the natural world, and also as metaphors and symbols. This part of the thesis focuses on analyses of selected poems from Robert Burns’ collection and aims to reveal specific purpose of using nature and natural aspects in them.

In the following subchapters, every poem is briefly introduced and a thesis, highlighted in bold, established. The thesis based on the analysis in a form of close reading is subsequently interpreted using relevant evidences. In order to select poems to be analyzed in this thesis, I conducted a research of collections of Burns’ poetry. Individual poems were evaluated with regard to a classification of natural poetry described in the Chapter 4. The aim was to select poems with different attributes, and possibly belonging to different classes of natural poetry.

The process of analysis was adapted with consideration of the purpose of this thesis, and the typology and classification of analyzed elements are based on the guide for poetry analysis prepared by the Undergraduate Writing Center of University of Texas (“Analyzing Poetry”) and Dr. Patten from San Jose State University (Patten).

The elements observed includes namely context, meaning the reference to a position of an analyzed poem in Burns’ work; content in terms of the speaker, tone, tension, and factual context to detect how these features change the understanding of the poem; language in terms of a word choice, meaning, and rhythm to evaluate the meaning and purpose of the text; imagery, the figurative language from the metaphorical, symbolical, visual, and sensory point of view to analyse the poems’ theme and tone; form such as the structure, stanzas and lines to evaluate contribution of these elements to the main idea of the work; and, finally, syntax, more precisely the use of verbs, stylistic devices, sentence structure, and punctuation to reveal the style of the work, and how these features influence ideas in the poem.
5.1To a Mouse

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