January 25, 2010

The influence of Robert Burns

The Scottish poet Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759. His centennial, 100 years after his birth, was during the period known as the American Renaissance — a period which saw massive accomplishments in the development of American culture, particularly in literature. Many of the major "heavy-hitters" in American literary history, then, were part of celebrating Burns's 100th birthday.

Poet James Russell Lowell wrote a memorial to burns specifically for the centennial in 1859. The author of the 24-stanza piece was then entering his 40th year. Lowell's poem, "At the Burns Centennial," incorporates just a little humor as it depicts the soul of Burns attempting to enter heaven ("You've let in worse, I 'se wager!"). In typical Lowell fashion, however, the poem is mostly just tedious to read.

But, perhaps no American poet owes more to Burns than John Greenleaf Whittier, the so-called Quaker Poet of Haverhill, Massachusetts. Whittier and Burns shared a rural background. The story goes that Whittier always kept a copy of Burns's poetry in his pocket while doing his chores on the family farm. To Burns, he wrote a poem called "Burns: On Receiving a Sprig of Heather in Blossom." In it, Whittier uses the sprig of heather as a metaphor for the work of Burns:

No more these simple flowers belong
  To Scottish maid and lover;
Sown in the common soil of song,
  They bloom the wide world over.

In smiles and tears, in sun and showers,
  The minstrel and the heather,
The deathless singer and the flowers
  He sang of live together.

...Through all his tuneful art, how strong
  The human feeling gushes!
The very moonlight of his song
  Is warm with smiles and blushes!

Give lettered pomp to teeth of Time,
  So "Bonnie Doon" but tarry;
Blot out the Epic's stately rhyme,
  But spare his Highland Mary!


  1. Another one I just came across: Oliver Wendell Holmes also commemorated Burns's centennial (about 90% of his poetry commemorates something) with a tolerable poem. See here.

  2. I especially like Whittier's poem!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.