This poem with a postscript On turning her up in her nest, with the plough, November, 1785, was published in Kilmarnock, Scotland, on July 31, 1786, as a part of the collection of Burns’ poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Wilkie, “Understanding Robert Burns” 74). The Kilmarnock Edition of Burns’ poems was the first book of his works published (Sibbald, “Analysis of To a Mouse”). In this poem, the author deals with the issue of nature at human’s mercy, the necessity to respect nature and its creatures, and identifies the animal difficulties with anxieties of a human and the human world.
This poem is introspective, based on Burns’ real experience, and it is easy to identify the speaker with the author (MacLean). The speaker is actively involved in the happening of the poem and refers to himself in the first person. Knowing the life story of Robert Burns allows the reader to understand speaker’s attitude towards the animal. Burns’ family suffered from oppression and poverty; however, I believe it is not the primary intention of the poem to compare Burns life with the misfortune of the mouse. It is not Burns in particular but all mankind the speaker speaks about. The four lines of the finale but one stanza claim that everyone’s plans, no matter how good the plans are, might go wrong and result in disappointment. These fears and regrets, the “anxieties”, are common to all men and women, to “mice an 'men”, throughout history. The most famous lines of the poem illustrate it:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy! (39-42)
For understanding this poem, it is important to keep in mind Burns’ personal experience. To a Mouse is one of the poems which clarify why Burns is called the “ploughman” poet. It is almost winter and the speaker works hard on his field. He destroys unintentionally mouse’s nest, and knows that the animal, small, harmless, and defenceless, will suffer. As it is indicated in the thesis to this poem, Burns criticises the human’s behaviour to nature, the changes in the relationship of a man to nature, and the “broken nature’s social union”.
As Coyer claims, Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) is the key text in the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, and Burns’ regret at breaking “nature’s social union” reflects Smith’s opinion that “all earthly creatures are bound together through benevolent exchange” (Coyer). To a Mouse is one of the poems advocating on against cruelty to animals; however, it is not meant to shock or severely reprimand. Burns went much further in criticising man’s behaviour towards nature in other poem, On Seeing a Wounded Hare:
INHUMAN man! curse on thy barb'rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart! (Burns, “On Seeing a Wounded Hare” 1-2)
Jamieson in his book A Companion to Environmental Philosophy calls Burns a poet who gave “voice to a form of environmental ethic” (148). In the book, the human dominion supplanting an earlier social union where humans and other living creatures were equal is explained especially by the adoption of agriculture and industrialism which both experienced boom during Burns’ life.
To a Mouse is one of the most famous of Burns’ work. There are aspects such as no dubiety in the meaning and interpretation, no complex imagery constructing the poem’s theme, for which this poem is very often analyzed at schools in the literature lessons. It contains several memorable lines which have been discussed repeatedly and inspired many other artists. One of the people who found inspiration in the message of the poem was John Steinbeck who developed his thoughts in his very famous novel Of Mice and Men (Sibbald, “Analysis of To a Mouse”). Previously quoted lines 39-42 describe virtually the whole story of the novel claiming that we cannot plan everything in our lives no matter how hard we try to do so. Knowing that we have no control over our own destiny is what causes the fear materialize in the final lines of the poem, “An' forward, tho' I canna see, / I guess an' fear!” (47-48).
The compassionate tone of the poem is developed and highly influenced by the diction the speaker uses. The diminutives such as “beastie”, “housie”, “Mousie” contribute to overall familiarity and affection in the tone. However, as the poem progresses, the tone changes from pitying the sad destiny of the little “beastie” to expressing its luck in the last stanza and feeling sorry for the humankind, “Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’me / The present only toucheth thee” (43-44)
The diminutives create also specific form of tension; especially the word “beastie”. The denotation of the word “beast” from the Oxford dictionary is “an animal, especially a large or dangerous four-footed one” which is inconsistent with the picture of a mouse. The poem begins naming the mouse a “beastie”, but in the last but one stanza the animal becomes “Mousie”. It is not “nest” anymore but “housie” the ploughman destroys. It might suggest the evolvement of the relationship between the speaker and the beastie. This causes heightened involvement the audience experience as the animal is being described more and more as a human. In the Dictionary of the Scots Language, however, the word denotation is “a living creature of any kind, that is not of the human species” which contributes to the feeling of nature in general being at a human’s mercy. In both cases, the mouse and men are made equal by the speaker saying that it is not alone in “failing to build wisely for the future; men fail at that too”(“To a Mouse”). The relationship changes further in the final stanza where the speaker claims that the human’s life is much more difficult because people have the ability to consider their future. Animals are “toucheth” only by present and live by present.
In each stanza, there are six lines in length, the first line rhymes with the second, third, and fifth, and the fourth line rhymes with the sixth. This form is called “Standard Habbie” and was rediscovered during the turbulent times of the eighteenth century (Lindsay). The quick lines serve well the purpose of social observations for which Burns is known. Each stanza represents one sentence providing a logical thought. The tone of the poem is influenced also by the poet’s syntactical choices, especially exclamation marks accompanying certain interjections and emphasizing certain phrases.
Burns uses for the speaker a specific English dialect called Scots to bring the poem closer to common “ploughman-like” Scottish people (“To a Mouse”). The use of diminutives is not supposed to be sentimental, rather to bridge the world of mice and men by friendly compassion. Both Czech translations, by Jiří Valja as well as by Josef Václav Sládek, use diminutives such as “zvířátko”, “domeček”, “Myško”, “chuděrko” to allow the reader to get the feeling of understanding of the animal (see Appendix).
The autumn atmosphere and expectations of upcoming winter are interlaced in the poem evoking chilly sensory experience to the reader. Gilbert Burns, brother of the poet, wrote that this poem was composed while Burns was ploughing a field in the autumn (Burns and Nicolas 128). Knowing the context and paying attention to the imagery, it is almost possible to smell the soil in the air and feel the autumn chill.
The purpose of the poem is to draw the attention to the importance of respecting all living creatures and nature in general. The author expresses friendly compassion with nature using diminutives of natural elements. The poem also compares a human destiny to the one of the animal. While identifying with the animal, the “earth-born companion”, at one moment, the attention turns to the humankind at the end of the poem claiming the human life is more difficult since humans think about the future. The message regarding the sorrow rising from broken nature’s social union, or in other words, from the change in the relationship between seemingly stronger and weaker individuals, does not have to point only at nature being at human’s mercy, but also at humans behaving disrespectfully to each other; “humans at humans’ mercy”, so to speak. This idea influenced many people including authors such as John Steinbeck. One possible explanation of the fame of the poem can be seen in its universality which might be illustrated by the fact that its thoughts are immediately applicable to today’s society.
5.2 My Heart’s in the Highlands
My Heart's in the Highlands
My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go. (Burns, “My Heart's in the Highlands”)
Collecting local songs on his tours in the Highlands in 1787 stirred up Burns’ patriotism and inspired him in creating poems such as My Heart's in the Highlands (“Follow the Path of Robert Burns”). Through the language, imagery, and forms used in the poem, Burns expresses his proud relationship to the Scottish Highlands, and uses nature as a symbol, a stand-in, for a complex and partially abstract idea of homeland. The significance of the poem is well presented by the fact that this poem was chosen by HRH The Prince of Wales, known as the Duke of Rothesay in Scotland, as one of the two he read publicly to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth (Khan).
The song was written in 1789 as a reaction to Burns’ tours in the Highlands which was his first encounter with the wild beauty of Scottish mountain ranges dominating the region (“Robert Burns: Works Written in 1789”). The most important companion on the tour was the scenery of uncultivated grandeur, and the magnificence of nature influenced the poem.
The speaker seems to be the poet himself. In 1789, Burns moves with his family to Dumfries, a city in the Lowlands (“Robert Burns – Biography”). He recollects memories from his trip to the Highlands and expresses in the poem the strong feeling of pride and a sense of belonging the place left inside him.The toneof the poem leaves the reader with feelings of admiration of the natural beauties as well as nostalgia and regret from not being in the Highlands. The sense of belonging and the regret are expressed in the line “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,” whose repetition emphasizes the patriotic feelings.
For the reader to understand the context of the poem, it is important to mention the seventeenth and eighteenth century rebellions led by Highlanders loyal to the Stuarts. They believed the hereditary rights of the king are inalienable. They felt they had to protect their land, habits, religion, their way of life, and not accept the House of Hanover as the rulers. However, the English crushed the Scots in the middle of the eighteenth century. The Highlanders were disarmed, and kilts and bagpipes outlawed. This defeat and consequent actions forced many Highlanders to emigrate and leave their homeland (“A Very Brief History of Scotland”). The farewell poem to the homeland is not only Burns’ reaction to his own geographical separation from the place he considered a representation of Scotland, his homeland, but also a reaction to the hundreds of Highlanders who were forced to leave their home.
Burns reacted to the situation of the eighteenth century oppression of Highlanders in spite of a threat of penalty, and knowing these poems will be omitted from his poetry editions. In the poem The Jolly Beggars: John Highlandman, already mentioned in this thesis, Burnstells a story of a Highlander “faithfu' to his clan” and “With his philibeg an' tartan plaid” who was sent for his loyalty to the clan and wearing kilt to a penal colony, among thieves, forgers, and housebreakers (Sibbald, “Robert Burns and 18th Century”). In both poems, Burns was communicating, though mainly in a private circle of people he trusted, his sympathy to the Highlands.
In My Heart’s in the Highlands, however, Burns does not openly criticise the society and the oppressive measures of the government as he does in a satirical poem A Dream inwhich he says, “Thoughts, words and deeds, the statute blames with reason: / But surely Dreams were ne'er indicted Treason!” (Sibbald, “Robert Burns and 18th Century”). My Heart’s in the Highlands rather elevates the beauties of the land, the fact that the Scottish people have a lot to be proud of, and expresses deep sadness from being parted. The sadness is even more emphasized in the translation of the poem by Jiří Valja who begins the Czech version with the original second stanza “Farewell to the Highlands” and parting with the land. Josef Václav Sládek keeps the original order in his translation of this poem (see Appendix).
The word choice could be characterized as persuasive but simple and straightforward, and expressions with strong meanings are used. The whole line “The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;” (6) depicting mental picture of the nation has deep strength and shows respect for bravery of those born in the country, the Highlanders. This, along with the rich description of the beauty of the Highlands especially in the third stanza, makes clear why to be proud of the Highlands. A word “wild” is repeated in different contexts, “wild-deer”, “wild-hanging woods”, to demonstrate the inherent beauty of the nature in the Highlands and also the unrestrained human nature of its people. The line “Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,” (3) can be then seen metaphorically as the effort to achieve freedom together with a family referring to the Highlanders leaving their homes. The pattern of the poem follows a form of a song with two rhyming couplets in four four-line stanzas and first and final stanza repeating as chorus. This allows the text to flow easily and musicality of the poem is further enhanced by heavily used alliteration such as in “My Heart’s in the Highlands, My heart is not here” (1,13). Except for serving the musicality of the poem, the alliteration also leads the reader to identify the word heart with the Highlands.
The concrete images of different natural beauties of the Highlands are chosen to highlight the grandeur of the land and to help create the symbol for homeland. “The mountains”, “the straths and green vallies”, “the forests”, “the torrents and loud-pouring floods”, “the hills of the Highlands” are elements accompanied by intensifying characteristics such as “wild-hanging”, “loud-pouring” emphasizing even more the magnificence of the natural treasures. While reading the lines depicting these natural elements almost picturesquely, one thinks of Scotland as of the most beautiful country. Moreover, the use of these adjectives creates an image of unrestrained country with lush nature, fertile valleys, and proud people.
The poetic structure in the form of a song contributes to clearness of the message of the poem. The audience to which the work is dedicated is a common man and thus the simplicity and directness of the language and flow provided by the song features help to better understand and to memorize the poem which was crucial for its distribution in Burns’ times. The length consistency of the stanzas and lines and no diversion from the pattern serves this purpose as well. The natural word order and logical completion of a thought on each line supported by clear usage of also contributes to easiness of the poem for understanding. The rhyming couplets are divided by a semi-colon, lines within the couplet by a comma and one stanza stands for one sentence. This is further supported by the consistent use of present simple tense and almost no verbs. “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,”; the simplicity of the syntactical choices enhances the perception of permanence of the statement.
The overall melodiousness of the poem and its strong message inspired Bob Dylan to borrow the title for his song The Highlands, in which he predicted he would end up in Scotland one day (Cramb). The idea of homeland and the strength of the feelings connected to the concept inspired also William Saroyan who borrowed not only the title, but also music of Burns’ poetry for his play My heart’s in the Highlands (Cody and Sprinchorn 943). The play was introduced in times of turmoil in 1939. It deals with the topic of the Depression era, but the plot is less important than the sentiments and ideas conveyed. According to Babakhanyan, the title of the play, the notion of hearts being “in the Highlands”, refers to the longing for one’s native land, no matter where one is (gtd. in Arkun). Babakhanyan adds that William Saroyan’s own heart was buried after his death in Yerevan; therefore in this case, Saroyan literally made sure his heart ended up in the highlands, at home.
Robert Burns in My Heart’s in the Highlands uses aspects of nature to symbolize homeland. The abstract idea of one’s home is in the poem transformed into a concrete picture by lively images describing nature and a certain place in Scotland. The depiction of grandeur of the Highlands, its magnificent scenery together with its “valiant” people, brings about feelings of pride and belongingness to the reader. The literary devices are selected by the author in a way to make the poem understandable and to support its musicality; particularly in the third stanza where the speaker repeatedly bids farewell to all the striking natural elements of the Highlands. The message of the poem can be formulated in a statement, “Even though I cannot be in the Highlands, I am proud of my country, and my heart will always be there”. This message influenced and inspired many people who return to this poem in uneasy times, and many authors used the central idea of the poem in their works.
A rosebud by my early walk,
Adown a corn-enclosed bawk,
Sae gently bent its thorny stalk
All on a dewy morning.
Ere twice the shades o' dawn are fled,
In a' its crimson glory spread,
And drooping rich the dewy head,
It scents the early morning.
Within the bush her covert nest
A little linnet fondly prest,
The dew sat chilly on her breast
Sae early in the morning.
She soon shall see her tender brood
The pride, the pleasure o' the wood,
Amang the fresh green leaves bedew'd,
Awauk the early morning.
So thou, dear bird, young Jeany fair,
On trembling string or vocal air,
Shalt sweetly pay the tender care
That tents thy early morning.
So thou, sweet Rosebud, young and gay,
Shalt beauteous blaze upon the day,
And bless the Parent's evening ray
That watch'd thy early morning. (Burns, “The Rosebud”)
The Rosebud is a song written in 1788 which is the time belonging to the “Edinburg years” of Robert Burns (“Robert Burns – Biography”). At this time Burns arrives in Edinburgh, where he is welcomed by a circle of friends. The poet writes this poem in a tribute to a twelve-years-old daughter of one of his friends. This poem uses the element of nature, the rosebud, as a symbol of youth and the natural beauty of maturing and growing up.The concept of growing up is symbolically expressed again as the linnet, a little bird, and its brood. This broadens the message to respect and gratitude to parents.
The speaker is the poet himself and is personally involved in the happening of the poem since it was during his “early walk” down the country lane when he saw the rosebud. The tone of the poem is developed by the usage of characteristics connected to freshness of morning and youth such as “dewy”, “crimson”, and “chilly”. The mood the poem creates in the reader is pleasant and allows him to almost feel the freshness of early morning air in the countryside. At the ending of the poem the mood changes slightly since it encourages “the rosebud” to express thanks and respect to its protectors. Hearing several versions of musical adaptation of the song makes the reader understand better the jolly, sweet, but also emotional and sensitive impression of the song. There is no spiritual, physical, moral or philosophical conflict depicted in the poem and the text is caressing the soul from the beginning to the end.
In October 1787, Robert Burns completed his highland tour. He then lodged in a house of William Cruikshank, a classics master at Edinburgh High School, in two attic rooms, staying until February 1788 when he returns to Mauchline (Wilkie, “His Life In His Letters” 212). Jane Cruikshank was the twelve-years-old daughter of Burns’ landlord. She was a fine musician and singer and helped him with his musical compositions. Robert Burns addressed her as “the sweet little rose-bud”. The Rosebud is not the only poem dedicated to Jane. 'To Miss Cruikshank' is a poem written in 1789 paying tribute to Jane’s youth and beauty once again. As it is shown in the extract of first two line of the poem (Burns, “To Miss Cruickshank”), the rosebud symbol is used here as well in “Beauteous rose-bud, young and gay, / Blooming on thy early May” (1-2).
Robert Burns mentioned Jane in all his letters to her father. In the letter of March 3rd, 1788, a letter of thanks for his three month stay with Cruikshank in Edinburgh, Burns writes, “…so I shall only beg my best, kindest, kindest compliments to my worthy Hostess, and the sweet little Rose-bud” (qtd. in “Letter to William Cruikshank”).
The word choice and the usage of the Scottish dialect contribute to the musicality of the poem and its personal tone. Particular words and their connotations support consistency of the poem and its meaning. The word “morning” is repeated in every stanza as “early morning”, or “dewy morning”. It serves not only as a refrain of the song contributing to its melodiousness, but also as an emphasis of the association the word evokes – youth, beginning, freshness. There is also the opposite of the word “morning” in the last stanza, “And bless the Parent’s evening ray” (23). The word “evening” here is a symbol of ending, more precisely, old age. In the second stanza, the poet also expresses how quickly the maturity comes saying “Ere twice the shades o’dawn are fled…” (5). Two days were enough for the bud to become a blossom.
A lovely example of oxymoron is present in the third line of the first stanza “Sea gently bent its thorny stalk” which might be an allusion to seeming helplessness of the youth. Sládek (see Appendix) omits the word “thorny” and the whole oxymoron in his Czech translation of the poem completely which, in my opinion, looses a bit of the dynamicity. Another word contributing to the meaning of the poem is the word “bird” and related “linnet”, “nest”, “brood”. A bird has many connotations and in the case of this poem it is used as a symbol of purity and innocence. It might be for this connotation why there is a notable presence of birds in English poetry, particularly from the Romantic age onwards (Mohammedfahmi Saeed 11). Moreover, the speaker compares Jeany to the bird because of her young ringing voice when saying, “So thou, dear bird, young Jeany fair, On trembling string or vocal air” (17-18).
The poem was written as a song so it operates with identifiable rhythm. The first three lines of each stanza rhyme. The last line of each stanza then serves as a refrain. Lack of simple alliteration and the initial rhyme is substituted by a word repetition which contributes to the musicality of the poem. The repetition of the word “morning” at the end of each stanza also emphasizes the idea of beginning and the idea thus becomes more noticeable to the reader.
The sensory experience evoked by concrete images in the poem contributes to understanding of the work. The vividness, the images the reader sees while reading the poem, work as layers added to simple ideas. The author does not use complex terminology and the meaning is clear. The sensory layers pull the reader deeper in the meaning of the poem. “The word picture” sets the tone and ambience of the poem and leaves the reader caught up in the flow of song (“Poem by Robert Burns 'The Rosebud'”). The reader appears in the early summer countryside in a cornfield with a linnet on a dewy hedge. An image of morning is repeated which emphasizes the feeling of purity.
The poem does not follow any specific formal poetic structure. Some sources call The Rosebud a poem and claim it was written in 1787 (“A Rose-Bud By My Early Walk”), and some authors call it a song and believe it was written in 1788 (“The Rosebud”). In any case, the poem has musical features and it was accompanied by a melody. It is believed that the composer of this melody was David Schiller. (“Poem by Robert Burns 'The Rosebud'”)
There are six stanzas with four lines moving smoothly. Every three lines of each stanza rhyme which causes the musical effect. The rhyme does not change which allows the text and the poem move smoothly. There are no syntactical anomalies changing the ideas in the poem which corresponds with the theme of the poem and the word order is natural – a simple tribute to a young girl. There are two words in the last two stanzas with capitals – Jeany and the Rosebud. This further denotes that the rosebud and Jeany means the same in the poem.
On August 26, 1788, one London newspaper, the Gazetteer, announced, “We have been favoured with some productions of Robert Burns, the Scots ploughman, the simplicity of which every reader of taste will admire” (322). This was followed by the poem “A Rose bud by an early walk”, “SONG, / Written by R. Burns” (Werkmeister 322). Although this newspaper recognized the beauty of the poem and reprinted it as an excerpt of the Kilmarnock Edition with the announcement I absolutely agree with, not much attention was paid to this piece of Robert Burns’ work.
In essence, Burns in the poem sensitively compares the process of growing up to dew bedecked morning, a rosebud turning into blossom, and a linnet in her nest with its brood. A young girl, Jeany, is compared to a young linnet which is to leave the nest very soon. She will, herself, soon burst forth in beauty and, later, blesses her parents later years. Morning becomes midday, the little birds adults, and the rosebud becomes a flower. All the natural elements to which Jeany is compared were selected with delicacy and the overall natural setting creates one amiable and peaceful image. Robert Burns is known as the National Bard of Scotland; however, this poem as well as quite substantial part of his work is not very familiar to the wider public. It is shame because in case of this poem, the audience looses the opportunity to enjoy straightforward and pleasant poetry full of accurate and well-worded natural parallels.
5.4 I Love My Jean
I Love My Jean
Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the West;
For there the bony Lassie lives,
The Lassie I lo'e best:
There's wild-woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between;
But day and night my fancy's flight
Is ever wi' my Jean.
I see her in the dewy flowers,
But minds me o' my Jean. (Burns, “I Love My Jean”)
I Love My Jean is a song written by Burns in 1787, and which became part of the Scots Musical Museum published in 1803. The Scots Musical Museum is the most important of the numerous eighteenth and nineteenth century collections of Scottish songs, and Robert Burns was enlisted as contributor and editor by James Johnson, the author of the project. Burns started collecting songs from various sources, often expanding or revising them, while including much of his own work (“The Scots Musical Museum”). The poem I Love My Jean can be defined as a “nature love poem”. Natural elements in the poem serve as a metaphor to express how it feels to love and as a tribute to Burns’ wife. The natural setting further reflects the poet’s mood and completes the enamoured picture the reader imagines reading the poem.
The poem was written as a compliment to Jean Armour, Mrs Burns, after their wedding. The first mention of the wedding was in a letter to James Smith dated April 28th, 1788. (Sibbald, “Songs for Weddings”). In the letter Burns reveals he got married saying:
There is, you must know, a certain clean-limbed, handsome, bewitching young hussy of your acquaintance, to whom I have lately and privately given a matrimonial title to my corpus.... I intend to present Mrs Burns with a printed shawl, in article of which I daresay you have variety: 'tis my first present to her since 1 have irrevocably called her mine... (“Smith, James. (1765-c. 1823)”)
On a copy of the Scots Musical Museum, Burns wrote a comment in which he revealed he composed the poem out of compliment to Mrs Burns and that it was during their honeymoon. The exact period is, however, hard to specify because Burns’ relationship with Jean was fairly irregular with several intermissions. Nevertheless, Jean Armour was the focus of at least 14 of Burns’ poems. (“The Scots Musical Museum”)
To understand the message of the poem it is viable to know the story behind it. Being acquainted with the context of the poem changes the understanding of the speaker’s attitude, and in this case allows the reader to identify the speaker with the author. Robert Burns’ relationship with Jean Armour lasted from 1784, when they began seeing each other, until his death in 1796 (Smith). Jean Armour bore Burns nine children in ten years, the last born on the day of the poet's funeral, and becomes the focus of at least fourteen of Burns’ poems. Nevertheless, I Love My Jean is by some authors considered the most fetching of them since Burns states here that Jean is the “lassie that he loves best”. The poet's famed love of the opposite sex, however, made his life and the relationship with Jane full of ups and downs. (Smith)
The day before his thirtieth birthday, in 1789, Burns wrote to a friend Alexander Cunningham, “I myself can affirm, both from bachelor and wedlock experience, that Love is the Alpha and the Omega of human enjoyment.”(“A selection of Burns love poems”)
This was Burns’ mantra and allowed him to create, according to Smith, “a remarkable canon” of universal love poetry which has found a place in the hearts of millions around the world for its truth and beauty. Burns met Jean in early 1784, when he was twenty-five and she was, at seventeen, a shapely brunette and one of The Belles of Mauchline, a poem written in 1784 (Linden Bicket). This song is in praise of six of the Mauchline's most attractive young women, who have caught the poet's eye. The last line of the final stanza clearly suggests that Jean Armour was “the jewel” for Burns:
Miss Miller is fine, Miss Markland's divine,
Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw:
There's beauty and fortune to get wi' Miss Morton,
But Armour's the jewel for me o' them a'. (Burns qtd. in Linden Bicket)
Two years later, in 1786, Jean had become pregnant with his first child.Jean’s parents were not sure of Burns prospects, and even though Burns wanted to marry Jean, her parents sent her away. Smith claims it was because James Armour, a successful stonemason, would not wed his daughter to a destitute ploughman who was a philanderer as well.
A complicated sequence of legal wrangles followed since the situation changed after Burns was called to admit his role in the affair. Meanwhile Burns was to get involved with Mary Campbell and Agnes McLehose before he finally married Jean. Burns’ love life and his whole life in general can be tracked in his poems. Mary Campbell is the “Highland Mary” from his poems and Agnes McLehose is “Clarinda”, to whom many Burns’ letters were addressed. (Smith; “A selection of Burns love poems”)
Burns turned to Mary after he had been deserted by Jean; unfortunately, Mary died in childbirth in October 1786, which devastated the poet. In the September 1786 Jean had given birth to twins. In July 1786, Burns’ first collection of poems, the Kilmarnock Edition, was published and his status in the world began improved. Jane became pregnant again but Burns being the man of fame now enjoyed the attention of other woman from higher society and meets Agnes. She was attractive and cultured but their relationship remained platonic which is probably the reason why Burns’ passion faded away, Burns finally married Jean and applied for a position as Exciseman. (Smith)
Although Burns struggled with the decision to marry, his most admired love poems were written about Jean and after their marriage including one of his most touching lyrics John Anderson, My Jo, celebrating the enduring love of an aging couple (Smith). Jean Armour had to be a very generous woman willing to put up with her husband’s life style. After accepting Burns’ illegitimate daughter in their family, Jean remarked “Our Robbie should have had twa wives” (qtd. in “A selection of Burns love poems”).
The power of the poem I Love My Jean lies in its simplicity and purity. There is no need to try to discover hidden meaning in the words or untangle complex allusions. The tone of the poem is consistent throughout the whole poem, and the diction and Scottish dialect in which the poem is written make it flowing and smooth from the beginning till the end. The delicacy and lovable joy in the words with no unpleasant tension predestined the poem to be popular as a wedding song (Sibbald, “Songs for Weddings”).
Metaphorical meaning is present when comparing Jean to the natural elements such as “the dewy flowers” and “the tunefu’ birds”. A form of comparison is present also in the second part of the final stanza where the speaker expresses that he sees his “Lassie” in every “bony flower”, “by fountain, shaw, or green”, and in every “bony bird that sings”. Other aspects of nature are present in the poem as a background to reflect the mood of the whole poem and drag the reader in the moment. The usage of active verbs in the “wild-woods grow, and rivers row” support the action and the dynamicity of the feelings.
Lines and stanzas are consistently the same length and use both, internal as well as end rhyme. Rhymes are present between second and fourth and then sixth and eight line of both stanzas. The rhythm and musicality of the poem is enhanced by alliteration and internal rhymes such as “wild-woods grow, and rivers row”, “But day and night my fancy’s flight”. Repetition, such as “I see her…”, “I hear her”, contributes again to the flow of the song and serves as a refrain. The logical units are divided by punctuation in a form of commas, colons and semi-colons. This might be a little bit confusing since the reader has to decipher what punctuation mark means longer pause and which one is here from the grammatical point of view.
The author uses concrete images to heighten the reader’s senses to allow him to see and imagine authentically what the poet did when writing the poem. The speaker “sees her”, “hears her”, the flowers are “dewy”, the “rivers row”. Thanks to this usage of language the reader experiences sensory input enhancing the perception of the poem and casting up a complete picture in the reader’s mind. The aural images such as “bird that sings”, “tunefu’ birds”, and “rivers row” are important here.
This poem is not celebrating nature as such nor is welcoming season or certain place. What qualifies this poem to be included in the category of nature poems, or as I suggest at the beginning of this analysis, “a nature love poem”? A nature poem broadly defined by Bugeja is “A poem in which nature plays an integral role…” (43). Nature is what ties this poem together and provides the setting. “The West” is where the “Lassie” lives and the speaker celebrates the beauties of the piece of land when describing it and comparing with Jean.
Both Czech translators of Burns’ work, Jiří Valja and Josef Václav Sládek, chose this poem for their collections. It is interesting that Sládek translates the first line omitting the “wind” element completely (see Appendix). From “Of a' the airts the wind can blaw” it becomes “Of all the corners in the world” (Jacks, 287). The translation loses a certain feeling of carefreeness and naturalness leaving the wind out. However, the rest of the translation maintains, according to Jacks, who reviewed criticaly translations of songs and poems of Robert Burns in other tongues, is uniform high standard. Jacks does not mention, however, in his critical analysis of translations that Sládek, unlike Valja, does not mention “Jean” at all. This might make the poem more universal for readers, but with this translation the poem loses the personal connection with Burns.
Robert Burns in I Love My Jean uses nature to illustrate the love for his wife and to support the appealing atmosphere by concrete aspects of nature. Although he portrays love with concrete images, he leaves enough room for the reader and his own imagination. It is what Robert Burns masters and makes his poems so touchable, personal and universal at the same time. Similarly to The Rosebud,I Love my Jean does not belong to well-known and widely analyzed poems written by Robert Burns’. The attributes these poems share are their simplicity, expression of fondness, and positive impression. Even the natural elements used to illustrate or accompany the theme are same or very similar, mentioning “dewy flowers” and “dewy morning”, singing birds are present in both poems, Jean “charms the air” and the rosebud “scents the early morning”. Nevertheless, the most important aspect the two poems share is that they are devoted to a concrete person whose name is mentioned in the poems. In general, therefore, it seems that poems sharing these attributes do not belong to those most famous and studied.
5.5 Address to the Woodlark
Address to the Woodlark
O stay, sweet warbling woodlark stay,
Nor quit for me the trembling spray,
A hapless lover courts thy lay,
Thy soothing, fond complaining.
Again, again that tender part,
That I may catch thy melting art;
For surely that wad touch her heart
Wha kills me wi' disdaining.
Say, was thy little mate unkind,
And heard thee as the careless wind?
Oh, nocht but love and sorrow join'd,
Sic notes o' woe could wauken!
Thou tells o' never-ending care;
O'speechless grief, and dark despair:
For pity's sake, sweet bird, nae mair!
Or my poor heart is broken! (Burns, “Address to the Woodlark”)
This song was written in 1795, a year before Burns’ death, for the purpose of George Thomson’s Select Collection of Scottish Airs. I have chosen this poem as the opposite to I Love My Jean to illustrate the extent to which nature and its parts are used in Burns’ poetry. It served as a metaphor for the feelings of love and celebrated the poet’s wife in I Love My Jean analyzed in previous chapter. Contrarily, in the Address to the Woodlark, the “sweet bird” accompanies the reader through a highly melancholic poem expressing unhappiness, sorrow, and disillusionment with unrequited love.
In my research, I did not come across any other analysis or summary dealing with this poem in detail. Burns himself did not comment on the poem and the only note he made in a letter to George Thomson, in which he sends the poem, was “Let me know, your very first leisure, how you like this song” (Burns and Currie 227).Analyses of Burns’ work usually focuses on several most famous poems such as To a Mouse, Auld Lang Syne or Tamo' Shanter (“Robert Burns Timeline”). It is pity that a poem as Address to the Woodlark does not get the attention it deserves.
The poem is highly melancholic and since the entire Burns’ work was inspired by his life, I tried to find specific reasons for writing these lines full of sorrow. Robert Burns was married when the poem was written, but it never stopped him from meeting other women. During his Dumfries years, he meets Maria Riddell; a young, educated, witty woman (Fowler 36). By 1793, the two had become “first of Friends”, and the author valued Maria as the “most accomplished of Women” (Burns qtd. in McLean). Their friendship was interrupted when Burns was banished from her sister-in-law's house. The reasons are not clear, but it was probably because of Burns’ inappropriate behaviour towards Maria while drunk at a dinner party (“Riddell, Maria Banks Woodley”). Maria afterwards likely felt obliged to withhold the friendship. Burns’ reaction to Maria’s rejection was long-sustained and occasionally dishonourable. He wrote to Maria, probably in January 1794:
If it is true that 'Offences come only from the heart', before you I am guiltless. To admire, esteem, prize and adore you, as the most accomplished of Women, and the first of Friends — if these are crimes, I am the most offending thing alive. (Burns qtd. in “Riddell, Maria Banks Woodley”)
Heartbroken lines alternated with satires and more radical and open expressions of his offended feelings. An example is this epigram titled Pinned to Mrs R…’s Carriage: If you rattle along like your Mistress’s tongue,
Your speed will outrival the dart:
But, a fly for your load, you’ll break down on the road,
If your stuff be as rotten ‘s her heart. (Burns qtd. in Fowler 37)
Although Burns and Maria became friendly again in 1795, Address to the Woodlark could have been inspired by the angry and miserable feelings of cold neglect Burns’ experienced during the previous several months (“Riddell, Maria Banks Woodley”).
The poem is told in the present tense and in the first person which emphasises the personal tone and currency of the words. From what we know about the circumstances of Burns’ life during 1794 – 1795, I suggest the speaker is the poet himself. It is clear from the seventh line that the speaker is a man, and the sorrow is caused by a rejection of a woman, not vice versa. The suffering of the speaker and unpleasant characteristics of the one who caused the sorrow is clear the most from lines “Wha kills me wi’ disdaining.” (8) and “And heard thee as the careless wind?” (10).
The overall tone is melancholic. The sad feelings of unrequited love are precisely described as the “love and sorrow join’d”. The poem seems to function as a self-torment, and the tone of the poem is further developed by tormented language. The tone progresses together with the internal tension the reader feels at the ending of the poem. The last two stanzas are closed by exclamation marks which contributes to the progressive impression and culminates with the final line “For pity’s sake, sweet bird, nae mair!”.
“Thy soothing, fond complaining” voice of the bird makes the reader imagine plaintive sound combining contradicting characteristics almost as in “love and sorrow join’d”. The mood of the speaker becomes more sombre as the poem comes to its end. While beginning with moving song of the woodlark, the melancholic mood progresses to the “speechless grief, and dark despair”. Even though the speaker seeks solace with the woodlark at the beginning, and asks him to sing “again, again that tender part”, he immerses deeper in his grief and at the end begs the bird to stop “Or my poor heart is broken” (16).
It is not clear whether Burns did not mistake a woodlark for some other bird since they are extremely rare in Scotland. In any case, it is said that a woodlark is able to sing for hours his “soothing, fond complaining” melodies, no matter if it is perched on a tree or in a great height where it is able to remain stationary (“The Wood Lark”). Burns is copying the melancholic singing of the bird in the poem. The alliteration is present enhancing the musicality of the poem and supporting the impression of listening to the bird’s singing such as in “O stay, sweet warbling woodlark, stay.” (1), “Again, again, that tender part” (5). Stanzas and lines are consistently the same length. First three lines of each stanza rhyme. In addition, the last lines of the first two (“complaining”, “disdaining”) and the last two stanzas (“wauken”, “broken”) verse together. The purpose of this rhyme scheme is to let the poem continue smoothly even if not sung as a song and to close the stanzas in logical units.
To create imagery, it is not important what one sees in this poem, but rather what he feels and hears. Nature in this poem reflects the mood of the speaker, and describes personal feelings out of the context of what is seen in nature. The sensory experience evoked by this poem is sorrowful, and is raised to a power by bird’s singing the reader hears in his mind reading the poem. It is beneficial to listen to the tune Burns chose for this song, a traditional Scottish song Loch Erroch Side. Its “soothing” melody completes the experience (O'Rourke).
According to Doggett, Burns sought inspiration from “the effortless lyric expressions of the singing birds” (550). The tradition linking bird songs to poetry reaches back to classical poetry, where the connotation with love started (548). It evolved in more general source of inspiration; something as a symbol of poetry. Doggett also claims that when a bird appeared in early Romantic poetry, it was presented as a creature, an instance, and a voice, rather than a symbol of poetry (551). This definition might be fully applied to Address to the Woodlark.
The poem Address to the Woodlark dealing with the sad feelings of broken heart illustrates the wide range of functions nature and natural elements adopt in Burns’ work. As opposed to the previous two poems, The Rosebud and I Love My Jean, nature in this poem serves as the means of evoking melancholic mood and even as its main source. The animal illustrating feelings of love and appreciation in the poem I Love My Jean and purity and innocence in The Rosebud, turns into the centre of the speaker’s suffering here and causes the melancholy to become unbearable. The central role of the woodlark in this poem lies also in the fact the speaker addresses his monologue to him. The natural elements in this poem do not primarily help to create the general setting, nor do they help the imagination of the reader to visualise the scene. More than visualisation, the other sensory inputs provided by the singing of the bird are important. As Dogget says, a bird has been a source of poetic inspiration for hundreds of years. In this case, it inspired the poet to bring about, through description of the bird’s melancholic singing, feelings of frustration from unrequited love.
5.6 The Lazy Mist
The Lazy Mist
The lazy mist hangs from the brow of the hill,
Concealing the course of the dark-winding rill;
How languid the scenes, late so sprightly, appear,
As Autumn to Winter resigns the pale year.
The forests are leafless, the meadows are brown,
And all the gay foppery of summer is flown:
Apart let me wander, apart let me muse,
How quick Time is flying, how keen Fate pursues.
How long I have liv'd - but how much liv'd in vain;
How little of life's scanty span may remain:
What aspects, old Time, in his progress, has worn;
What ties, cruel Fate, in my bosom has torn.
How foolish, or worse, till our summit is gain'd!
And downward, how weaken'd, how darken'd, how pain'd!
Life is not worth having with all it can give,
For something beyond it poor man sure must live. (Burns, “The Lazy Mist”)
This song was written during one of Burns’ most productive years in 1788 as a part of the Scots Musical Museum (“The Lazy Mist”). Some authors use the title The Fall of the Leaf and call the work a poem from the beginning leaving the fact the piece was originally meant as a song aside (“The Fall of the Leaf”). In this little known piece, the chilly autumn atmosphere evoking a melancholy mood leaves the speaker thinking about not making use of his life so far and the time we have left to live. Nature in this poem serves as a means of depiction of anguish, the setting evoking mournful atmosphere, and as a metaphor for the natural life cycle.
Burns’ talent lies in his ability to breathe the melodiousness in the poem, and it is not necessary to hear the tunes to feel the mood of the poem. Nevertheless, I looked up the tune assigned to this song which was given the same name as the song The Lazy Mist, and it slightly changed my perception of the poem. One would expect sombre melody accompanying the serious tone of the poem, but the tune Burns chose for this song and in the version on CD Complete Songs of Robert Burns is actually a soft Irish melody which reduces the load of the words in the poem.
When analyzing the context in which this poem was written, I did not come across anything particular that could cause this melancholic mood. Robert Burns once described to his friend George Thompson the way his poetry came about and this poem seems to be sound example of this process:
I walk out, sit down now & then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy & workings of my bosom; humming every now & then the air with the verses I have framed; when I feel my Muse (the deity or power of poetry) beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, & there commit my effusion to paper. (qtd. in “Robert Burns”)
It is true that by 1788, Mossgiel was becoming a losing concern. However, Robert was able to help financially to his brother, he also took a long-term lease of a farm called Ellisland near Dumfries, and finally got the permission to marry Jean (“Robert Burns and Auld Lang Syne”). I suggest this poem was created as a reflection of a life in general not arising from one particular occasion. A substantial part of Burns’ life has been already covered in the thesis, and it is clear that he was often in a state of emotional turmoil he imprinted in his work later.
First lines set the melancholic tone of the poem. They present “languid scenes”, and together with stating it is late autumn evoke tired and gloomy atmosphere. “Forests are leafless, the meadows are brown”, nature is losing its colours, loosing lushness and life. The moment is emphasized by comparison with “the gay foppery of summer”. The speaker in his depressive mood ruminates on the fast pace in which “Time is flying” and “Fate pursues”. Both Time and Fate are highlighted in the lines by capital letters and as the poem progresses they are personified when given animated characteristics such as “old Time” and “cruel Fate”. The speaker continues thinking about his life up to now, its triviality, and realizes there might not be much time left to live when asking “How little of life’s scanty span may remain” (10). The last stanza brings a little surprising aspect. The speaker compares getting to one’s summit as foolish and the way down the top, which I do not see only as ageing but also as life after reaching certain longed point, as “weaken’d, darken’d, how pain’d”. In last two line of the stanza, however, he claims the man sure must live for something beyond the life, because just life itself would not be worth it “with all it can give”. One might see it as a hopelessness of a life and unhappiness with what a life brings. I see the last lines as a hope and faith for better tomorrows.
All that Burns says about the authorship of this song is “This song is mine”, which suggests he was particularly proud of this piece (Burns and Cunningham 323). In the Preface of the second volume of the Museum, Burns says, that the songs in the volume are “all of them the work of Scotsmen.” He tried to recover the old words where it was possible. He notes that some might sneer at the simplicity of the poetry or music, but claims these are the favourites of “Nature’s judges – the common people”. The song The Lazy Mist, even though written in English, is said to be a favourite with the Scottish peasantry and the grave and moralizing strain corresponds with the character of the people. (Burns and Cunningham 323 -324)
Every two lines rhyme using the end rhyme. This serves as the main carrier of the rhythm since other devices enhancing musicality of the poem such as alliteration are not widely present here. Tension is present in the poem as the story progresses and makes the reader to read the whole peace. The speaker becomes more and more disturbed and in the middle of the final stanza this tension is highlighted by using exclamation marks. This use of punctuation helps to create the effect of gradation of intensity of the message. The use of active verbs and even continuous tense brings about the perception of being at the moment and the reader can almost feel the time “flying”.
The word choice plays an important role. The author uses not only connotations tied to “Autumn” and “Winter” as the final parts of a human life; he supports the imagery also by wide use of melancholic autumnal adjectives such as “leafless” forests and “brown” meadows, and compares it to “the gay foppery of summer”. The concrete images support the visual as well as the sensory experience of the reader, since he can see, smell, feel, and breathe the misty autumn atmosphere. It is interesting to note that “Autumn” and “Winter” are capitalized whereas summer is not. The meaning I can see is that the capitalized seasons are put on the level of Time and Fate in the poem, and summer is meant just as the part of a year.
Nature in this poem creates the overall setting evoking melancholic mood by using autumnal elements. Through the course of the poem, the feelings of depression are piling up when the speaker is rethinking his life. Natural elements help here to illustrate the natural life cycle again with the help of seasonal analogy. The natural metaphor is further used when comparing one’s life and the human life cycle in general to climbing up the summit and then, in the latter part of life, weakly descending it. Robert Burns in The Lazy Mist makes use of nature toelaborately present human feelings tied to rethinking the purpose of a life. Although the author managed to incorporate this complex message in just two stanzas, he did so using regular literary devices which allowed the piece to be acceptable to “common people”, and the poem would certainly deserve more attention.
The focus of this thesis was to examine the theme of nature in the poetry of Robert Burns. The major part of the thesis aimed at specifying the thematic and structural role of nature and natural elements in selected poems.
The introductory part of the thesis acquaints the reader with the historical and natural attributes of Scotland. It is not only the atmosphere of the eighteenth century what influenced Burns’ work. The overall Scottish identity resulting from the haunting history and wild nature is imprinted in his poetry. The social aspect of To a Mouse and patriotism presented in My Heart’s in the Highlands are proofs of that. The following brief insight into the poet’s biography clarifies approach of Robert Burns’ to life, which is consequently projected in his poems. This part proved its worthiness especially in understanding poems regarding love, namely I Love My Jean and Address to the Woodlark. The theoretical background is enclosed by an introduction of the literary movement Burns pioneered, pre-romanticism, and a definition of natural poetry is provided in this place to establish the framework for the following analytical part.
The natural world has always been an important subject for poets and a significant source of inspiration. In Burns’ poetry nature serves as much more than simply a passive setting. Robert Burns combines structural, thematic, content, and expressional use of nature in his poetry. Every poem analyzed in the final chapter deals with nature in a different way. Although I deliberately selected poems which were diverse, the richness and variety with which Burns employs nature in them is impressive and unanticipated.
Nature is an infinite source of inspiration; however, Burns manages to use even the same natural elements in completely different roles without any sense of repetition. To a Mouse deals with the issue of nature at human’s mercy and aims at drawing the attention to the necessity of respecting all living creatures. In this poem the author communicates his humanitarian views as well as his opinion on difficulties of human life. In My Heart's in the Highlands Burns expresses the beauty of the Scottish Highlands and his proud feelings of belongingness to the land through vivid and descriptive language using natural aspects. Nature stands for the idea of homeland here. The rosebud in the poem of the same name serves as a symbol of youth and beauty. An amiable comparison of different natural elements undergoing the process of change is used to illustrate the beauty of maturing. Two of the analyzed poems deal with the theme of love. In I Love My Jean, nature serves as a metaphor of how it feels to love somebody. The author uses different aspects of nature to depict highly romantic atmosphere. On the contrary, in the melancholic poem Address to the Woodlark, the animal is given a central role to transfer the feelings of a broken heart on the reader through its singing. The images used in the previous poem I Love My Jean and even in The Rosebud are transformed to carry quite the opposite meaning here. In the final poem analyzed in this thesis, The Lazy Mist, nature functions metaphorically as the natural life cycle, serves as a means of portraying dissatisfaction with one’s life, and supports the overall depressive atmosphere of the poem. The analyses showed not only Burns’ intimate relationship with the natural world and his poetic qualities, but also the scope of inspiration nature provides.
One of the surprising findings was that there is very limited amount of secondary sources dealing with most of the poems analyzed in this thesis. Considering the fact that Robert Burns is known as the National Bard of Scotland and one of the symbols of the country, I would expect his work to be discussed widely. The available analyses, however, are often narrowed to several most famous poems. The two poems analyzed in this thesis dedicated to a concrete person, I Love My Jean and The Rosebud, belong to the group of poems with almost no secondary sources to work with. One of the possible explanations could be that the readers might not consider these poems “universal” since they are written to a specific person. However, I must agree with Paul Moulton who claims that Burns’ specific descriptions may actually make his poems more universal (51), and with Penny Fielding who adds that the specific address creates a more human poetry and consequently a more universal literature (qtd. in Moulton 51).
To sum up, the overall impression Robert Burns’ natural poetry has made on me personally is overly positive. Reading these natural poems allowed me to disconnect from the rush of the modern world. With the help of Burns’ imagination and particular artistry reflecting on the character and experience of the Scottish, these poems helped to create the heartening Scottish identity. John Burroughs said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order” (qtd. in “Quotes by John Burroughs”). Natural poetry written by Robert Burns has the same effect.
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“A selection of Burns love poems.” Scotland.org. Scottish Government, Dec. 2008. Web. 08
“A Very Brief History of Scotland.” Scotland History. The Royal Caledonian Society of South Australia Inc., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2013.
“An Introduction to British Neoclassical, Pre-Romantic and Romantic Poetry.” Licence 2
Semestre 3: Nature and the Self. Université Du Maine, LE MANS. Lecture.
“Analyzing Poetry.” Undergraduate Writing Center. University of Texas, n.d. Web. 03 Nov.