Born on 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, to William and Agnes Brown Burnes, Robert Burns followed his father's example by becoming a tenant farmer. Unlike William Burnes, however, Burns was able to escape the vicissitudes and vagaries of the soil in two ways: toward the end of his life he became an excise collector in Dumfries, where he died in 1796; and throughout his life he was a practicing poet. As a poet he recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice and belief in such a way as to transcend the particularities of his inspiration, becoming finally the national poet of Scotland. Although he did not set out to achieve that designation, he clearly and repeatedly expressed his wish to be called a Scotch bard, to extol his native land in poetry and song, as he does in "The Answer":
Ev'n then a wish (I mind its power)
A wish, that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast;
That I for poor auld Scotland's sake
Some useful plan, or book could make,
Or sing a sang at least.
And perhaps he had an intimation that his "wish" had some basis in reality when he described his Edinburgh reception in a letter of 7 December 1786 to his friend Gavin Hamilton: "I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas a Kempis or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin's and Aberdeen Almanacks.... and by all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world."
That he retains the designations "Scotch bard" and "national poet of Scotland" today owes much to his position as the culmination of the Scottish literary tradition, a tradition stretching back to the court makars, to Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, to the seventeenth-century vernacular writers from James VI of Scotland to William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, to...