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Associated Locations:

  • Ayrshire, Scotland

Associated Dates:

  • 25 January 1759 – Born

Robert Burns is one of the eminent spirits who appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple (Latter-day Saint, LDS) on August 21, 1877. This interesting story is detailed in the Eminent Spirits Appear to Wilford Woodruff wiki.

“Nature, in her harrowing, ofttimes sows a certain seed fill of thundering restraint, That seed is divine, and encased in mortal soil it receives nourishment, deprivation, or both. In 1759, such a seed was born–Robert Burns of Scotland. Burns was born full of celestial messages, yet without the facilitation or means to easily perform his divine mandate. Notwithstanding his station in life, Burns was to become the greatest poet Scotland ever produced and was loved throughout the entire English world.”1

:”But deep this truth impressed my mind–
:Tho’ all his works abroad,
:The heart benevolent and kind
:The most resembles God”

– Robert Burns

Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.

Scottish Poet 1759-1796

The life of Robert Burns is a span of paradoxes often contradictory and complex. Although he worked from the first light of day to the last light of the sun at night, poverty was ever his lot. Known as an expert plowman, he would follow his plow with a book in hand, and then by candle light write out his supreme dictates. Nothing escaped the view of this heaven-taught plowman; such works as “The Fall of a Leaf”, “To a Mountain Daisy,” “To a Mouse,” “To a Louse,” “Yon Wild Mossy Mountains” all came from his daily communion with his surroundings,

Once he described to his friend George Thompson the way his poetry came about:

“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. 2

Burns said, “The poetic genius of my country found me … at the plough, and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, and rural pleasures of my native soil, in my native tongue, I tuned my wild artless notes as she inspired.”3 His was said to be the purest and finest of poetry.

One of the greatest lyricists of all time, he was the very soul of Scotland. Because of his love of liberty and justice and brotherhood, he raised all of Scotland to a new state of patriotism. Sir Walter Scottcalled Burns’ work “fine strains of sublime patriotism.”4

His poem “A Man’s a man for A’ That” was a clear note for democracy:

“….Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will
That sense and worth, o-er all the earth,
May bear thee agree
That man to man the world over,
Shall brothers be.”

His “Ode for General Washington’s Birthday” is a clarion call to his own native land to become sons of liberty:

“… To thee [Scotland] I turn with swimming eyes,
___ Where is the soul of Freedom fled?”

Burns had the ability to turn the Scottish heart to its own land. As Thomas Carlyle noted: “A tide of Scottish [patriotism], had been poured along his veins, and he felt that it would boil there till the flood-gates shut in eternal rest.”5

Evening sessions by the fire

Robert Burns was born to William and Agnes Brown Burns on 25 of January 1759. A few days later a northwest storm blew a portion of the wall and roof off their little farm house down, driving William to seek shelter for his wife and child with a nearby neighbor. Turbulent was his birth and turbulent was his life. Burn’s father, William had profound nobility of soul. He was as pure before his make as ever a man came to be. He was a man of great strength and devotion. He continually supplemented his sons’ limited education as they worked on the farm and during evening sessions by the fire. Rooted in the Bible, their lessons included history and grammar. Gilbert, Burns’s youngest brother wrote:

My father was for some time almost the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all subjects with us as if we had been men and was at great pains while we accompanied him in the labors of the farm to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge or confirm us in virtuous habits6.

No son ever had a more attentive father. Some writers pronounced him stern because of his resolve to do right and be honest. But to classify him in this way is to do him an injustice; his feet were firmly planted upon the path of honesty, integrity, and the hard labor that was the lot of poor Scottish land tenants. To these qualities of his father, Burns was never untrue.

It was because of the burdens his good father bore that Burns developed a bitter dislike for the separation of the classes and reflected this in his writings. It was hard for him to accept his father’s struggles with poverty and want as the family was continually harassed by the landowner’s agent. These reflections of his devout and oppressed father produced in Burns’s mind sensations of deepest distress.

Agnes Burns, mother of Robert Burns

Burns’s mother, Agnes, was devoted to her husband and children. She worked hard and sang as she worked. Many of the songs she sang had been passed from generation to generation without ever being written down. Sometimes whole verses had been lost and new verses added, and some lines altered beyond recognition. The tunes were old and often ancient. Agnes had an excellent voice, sweet and strong. Her memory served her well with an unending repertoire of songs. Her children loved to listen to her, especially Robert who never tired of hearing her sing, and the children often joined her in singing.

But of all the paradoxes in Burns’s life, the greatest was that he was tone-deaf. His mother’s music could set the melody pulsing in him, but he could not vocally release it. It was not until he discovered poetry that he discovered his own source of release, Had he not been tone-deaf, the world probably would not have received the wondrous gifts from the pen of Robert Burns.

A fortunate accident helped prepare him for his poetic future. An Uncle brought what he thought was a letter-writer book to the Burns, but it turned out to be a small collection of the most eminent writers, which exposed Burns to the great masters.

Burns never forgot his mother’s songs or the love he had for them. Years later he would search out and collect old Scottish songs and write them down. He also wrote new tunes to old songs. He did this while he remained a poor land tenant, working as an exciseman, being a husband a father and suffering from weakening conditions of health. In doing so he preserved a diminishing heritage.

Arthur Henry King, and English literary scholar has stated; “If was man is a promoter of freedom, he has a generosity of the soul that can lead to a frailty in his actions.7 So it was with burns. He had the power of making man’s life more honorable and reverenced, but as Carlyle said: “That of wisely guiding his own life was not given.”8 In protesting against hypocrisy he, like Byron, occasionally stepped beyond the limits of prescribed good taste. Nevertheless he was keenly aware of his own mortal failings, and often sought a merciful God repentantly.

Though Burns’s sympathies were on the side of right, his personal acts were at times irresponsible and often without excuse, though seldom irreverent. He possessed a strong religious faith in a benevolent Creator. For that reason he was opposed to the Calvinistic doctrine of his day, that of “original sin” with now room for repentance. He felt that the whole business was reversed: “We come in to this world with a heart & disposition to do good for it,” but we soon find ourselves “under a kind of cursed necessity of turning selfish in our own defense. He was “glad to grasp at revealed religion.”9

Some claim that Burns died of alcoholism; however, stories of his intoxication appear exaggerated. It does not appear documented that he drank more than any other ordinary Scotsman. Mr. Alexander, his superior officer in the Excise office, publicly stated that Burns “was quite capable of discharging the duties of his office, nor was he ever known to drink by himself or seen to indulge in the use of liquor in a forenoon …. and I never beheld anything like the gross enormities with which he is now charged.10

The fairer sex was perhaps his greatest intoxication. The very presence of a woman seemed to hold him in a mystical spell. His first poem as a youth was to a young lass with whom he was, in the old Scottish tradition, paired to work in the hay fields at haying time. Burns noted that he had not even had an inclination to be a poet till his heart brimmed with love for “Nell.” Once this love awoke his genius, it became the cornerstone of his work: the love of nature, of fellow man, homeland, and especially, of the heart.

As he grew older his father sent him to learn the rudiments of surveying in Edinburgh. Here he became filled with admiration of the lovely daughter of one of his scholars. Upon his return he was asked by a friend, “Well, and did you admire the young lady?”

“A admired God Almighty more than ever!” was the reply: “Miss Burnett is the most heavenly of all his works.”11

This example expresses Burns’s lifelong attitude toward women and their influence in his life and work. He regarded women as “the blood-royal of life.”12

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dear
Her noblest work she classes
Her prentice han’ tried on man
An’ then she made the lasses

Jean Armour

Burns felt deep loyalty towards his family. When his father died, Burns supported his mother and brother and sisters. In an old Scottish custom, he signed a paper of marriage with Jean Armour. But after she bore twins, her father forbade her to see Burns and tore up the “paper.” Devastated Burns decided to leave Scotland for Jamaica. He intended to sell his poems for passage. To his surprise the poems were wonderfully successful, and he decided not to sail.

Jean’s father finally relented to the formal marriage after a second set of twins was born. Burns then settled in supervising the construction of the new home for his growing family, He personally supervised the education of his children. When his health began to fail, his chief concern was for his wife and their four living children. In reflection on home life he wrote the all-time favorite poem “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”:

The parents pair their secret homage pay.
And proffer up to Heaven the warm request,
That he who stills the ravens clam’rous nest
And deck the lily fair in flow’ry pride,
Would, in the way His wisdom sees best,
For them and for their little ones provide;
But chiefly in their hearts with grace divine preside.

Burns referred to himself as a Scottish “bard,” which, according to Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, is a poet and singer among the ancient Celts. The occupation of the bard was to compose and sing verses “in honor of the heroic achievements of princes and brave men.” Burns fit this definition well for his verses were filled with such declarations

Statements made by his wife and brother indicate that he had a rheumatic heart condition often kept a glass of cold water by he bed stand for the when his heart flutter. A splash of water seemed to help him catch his breath. This health condition and his early death were in part the result of the privation and strenuous work of his youth.

In 1796, his health gave way. Burns was sent to a distant town for its mineral baths and health. This trip was more detrimental than helpful, and he returned home in an extremely emaciated state. On 26 June, 1796, he wrote Mr. James Clarke:

Still, still the victim of affliction! … Whether I shall ever get about again is only known to Him, the Great Unknown, whose creature I am…. As to my individual self, I am tranquil, and would despise myself if I were not; but Burns’ poor widow and half a dozen of his dear little ones–helpless orphans!–there I am weak as a woman’s tear …13

Burns’s short life came to an end on 21 July 1796, at thirty-six years of age. He was buried on 25 July, the same day his widow, Jean, gave birth to a son, Maxwell. Before his death Burn prophesied to his wife: “Don’t be afraid. I’ll be more respected a hundred years after I’m dead than I am at present.”15

  1. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.
  2. Fitzhugh, Robert T. Robert Burns: The Man and the Poet: A Round, Unvarnished Account. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970, p. 13.
  3. Duyckinck, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women. New York: Henry J, Johnson, 1873, p. 215
  4. Scott, Sir Walter. The Journal of Sir Walter Scott. New York: Harper & Brother, 1980, 1:276.
  5. Carlyle, Thomas. Burns. Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1903, p. 89.
  6. Daiches, David. Robert Burns. New York: Macmillan, n.d., p. 46.
  7. Personal correspondence with Arthur Henry King, July 1992.
  8. Carlyle, p. 52.
  9. Fitzhugh, p. 15.
  10. Crichton-Browne, Sir James. Burns from a New Point of View. London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited, n.d., p. 53.
  11. Duyckinck, p. 215.
  12. Fitzhugh, p. 6.
  13. Crichton-Browne, p. 83.
  14. Fitzhugh, p. 12.[/ref]

    Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. 14Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.

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