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Robert Burns: The Ploughman Poet‘s Prolific Pen

Robert Burns (1759-1796), the national poet of Scotland, is often hailed as the "Ploughman Poet" due to his humble beginnings as a tenant farmer. But this simple epithet belies the astonishing scope of Burns‘ literary achievements. In his short life of just 37 years, Burns wrote an incredible 559 poems and songs that have left an indelible mark on world literature and popular culture.

A Passion for Poetry from an Early Age

Burns‘ first attempt at verse came at the tender age of 15 when he penned "Handsome Nell" in honor of his childhood sweetheart Nelly Kilpatrick. This early effort marked the beginning of a prolific outpouring of poetry that would continue unabated until his untimely death.

According to Burns‘ own account, his passion for poetry was ignited by the "old Scottish songs" his mother would sing to him as a child. These traditional ballads and folk tunes fired Burns‘ imagination and inspired him to start crafting verses of his own. As literary critic Donald Low notes, Burns "was steeped in the traditional life and lore of the Scottish countryside" and drew heavily upon these influences in his work.

Preserving the Scots Language and Folk Tradition

One of Burns‘ most significant contributions to Scottish culture was his use of the Scots language in his poetry. At a time when English was becoming the dominant literary language in Scotland, Burns chose to write primarily in his native Scots tongue. By doing so, he helped preserve and legitimize Scots as a viable poetic language.

Burns scholar Gerard Carruthers estimates that over 1/3 of Burns‘ songs and poems are written substantially in the Scots vernacular. Iconic works like "To a Mouse", "Address to a Haggis", and "Auld Lang Syne" are all composed primarily in Scots, albeit in a register that would have been widely understood across Scotland and England at the time.

In addition to his original compositions, Burns was also a diligent collector and preserver of traditional Scottish folk songs. He worked extensively to gather, revise, and arrange hundreds of old tunes, ensuring they would survive for generations to come. Burns‘ pioneering work as a folklorist resulted in compilations like The Scots Musical Museum and A Select Collection of Original Scotish [sic] Airs, which remain invaluable resources for understanding 18th century Scottish folk culture.

Romantic Entanglements and Poetic Muses

Burns‘ romantic life was notoriously complicated, and many of the women he loved served as muses for his poetry. In total, Burns fathered 12 children by 4 different women. His wife Jean Armour bore him 9 children alone, though sadly only 3 survived infancy.

Prior to his marriage to Armour in 1788, Burns had already fathered an illegitimate child with his mother‘s servant Elizabeth Paton in 1785. The following year, he became romantically involved with Mary Campbell (immortalized as "Highland Mary" in his poems) and even exchanged Bibles with her in a kind of unofficial marriage. However, Mary tragically died of typhus before they could be formally wed.

Other significant romantic partners and poetic inspirations for Burns included Nancy McLehose (the "Clarinda" of his passionate love letters), Agnes "Nancy" Mauchline McLehose, Jenny Clow, and Margaret "May" Cameron. These tumultuous affairs surely contributed to the depth of feeling in much of Burns‘ romantic verse.

The People‘s Poet

Despite his amorous exploits, Burns was more than just a lovelorn bard. He was also a deeply political writer who used his poetry to rail against injustice and champion the cause of the common man. Poems like "The Slave‘s Lament", "Man Was Made to Mourn", and "Is There for Honest Poverty" showcase Burns‘ progressive egalitarian philosophy and his empathy for the downtrodden.

Burns himself lived most of his life in poverty and had a natural affinity for the struggles of the working class. His radical political views made him a hero to many liberals and revolutionaries, especially in Tsarist Russia. As scholar Natalia Kaloh Vid has documented, almost 200 translations of Burns‘ works were published in the Soviet Union, making him "the people‘s poet of Russia."

Burns was also a committed Freemason and incorporated many Masonic themes and symbols into his work, such as in the song "The Farewell to the Brethren of St. James‘ Lodge, Tarbolton". Burns scholar Dr. James Hogg estimates that around 10% of Burns‘ known poetic output contains some mention of Freemasonry.

A Lasting Legacy

Though Burns lived a short and difficult life, his prodigious talent and indefatigable spirit live on through his immortal verses. From the Chinese translation of "Auld Lang Syne" that‘s sung each New Year to the continued worldwide popularity of Burns Night Suppers, the Ploughman Poet‘s legacy endures.

Today, there are hundreds of clubs, monuments, museums, and festivals all over the world dedicated to honoring Burns‘ memory and studying his work. In 2019, genealogists at the University of Glasgow even identified over 900 living descendants of Burns across the globe, underscoring the remarkable reach of his bloodline.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the power of Burns‘ poetry came from his fellow Scot Andrew Carnegie. The famed industrialist once said of Burns: "You gave the world the best that was in you. No poet‘s pen ever pierced more surely to the inmost thoughts and feelings of men than did yours." Through his astonishing output of 559 poems and songs, Robert Burns truly gave the world a piece of his passionate soul – a gift that will continue to inspire generations to come.