Passion For Poetry

In honour of Robbie Burns Day this week, what better poetry form to feature than the Burns Stanza?

But first a little about the great man himself. Robert Burns was born at Alloway, near Ayr, on January 25, 1759. He was working as a farm labourer when he met his first love, Nelly Kirkpatrick. She inspired him to try his hand at poetry, a song entitled "O, once I lov'd a bonnie lass", set to the tune of a traditional reel. He worked at a succession of labouring jobs, and began writing poetry regularly.

He was a bit of a philanderer, and over the course of ten years he had eight illegitimate children born to him through five different women. The first published work of poetry by Burns was "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" in1786. This collection contained many of Burn's best works, including "To a Mouse", and "The Holy Fair".

Despite his success, he was unable to find a patron to support his writing, but publisher James Johnson gave him work editing a collection of Scottish folk songs. This work, titled "The Scots Musical Museum", was published in 5 volumes over sixteen years. Burns himself contributed over 150 songs, including "Auld Lang Syne", a reworking of an earlier folk song of unknown origin.

Burns and his wife Jean moved to Mauchline, where in 1790 he produced "Tam o' Shanter", which was first published merely as an accompaniment to an illustration of Alloway Kirk, in a volume of "Antiquities of Scotland". The growing Burns family moved again, this time to Dumfries.

Burns contributed 114 songs to "A Select Collection Of Scottish Airs" by George Thomson, but he received very little payment for his efforts. In 1795, Burns was inspired by the events of the French Revolution to write "For a' that and a' that", his cry for human equality.

One year later, on July 21, 1796, Burns was dead of rheumatic fever. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Michael's in Dumfries, as his wife Jean was giving birth to their ninth child.

The Burns Stanza

This stanza already existed before Burns made it his own, under the name of Standard Habbie, after Habbie Simpson (1550-1620), the Piper of Kilbarchan. It is also sometimes known as the Scottish stanza or six-line stave.

In this form Burns makes the first three lines rhyme with the fifth. The fourth and sixth lines become the second rhyming pair. It is written in iambic metre - the a lines have four metrical feet each, and the b lines have two.

The pattern is as follows:

x x x x x x x a
x x x x x x x a
x x x x x x x a
x x x b
x x x x x x x a
x x x b

The Tryst

The scent of lilac in the air
The summer sun upon her hair
Her beauty oh, so rare
Passersby will stop and stare
Such a vision, meant to share
She is so very fair.

Preoccupied, she sees them not
She waits for he whose eye she caught
It was love at first sight
She was certain this was the spot
There was no chance that he forgot
She prayed he was all right

At last she hears a certain pace
And then beholds a much-loved face
Her fears are soon forgot
And though he feels he’s in disgrace
She warms his heart with her embrace
And once again he’s caught.

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