Robert Burns’ “A man’s a man for a’ that” as a Poetic Illustration of his Revolutionary Political Beliefs

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

10 Pages, Grade: 2,0


List of Contents:

1. Robert Burns: A Revolutionist of his Time

2. The historical Circumstances in Scotland during the 18th Century

3. Burns’ Song ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Robert Burns: A Revolutionist of his Time

Today Robert Burns is known as one of the greatest and most widely renowned writers of Scotland. His significance for the Scottish literature not only manifests itself within his numerous works, among them poems, letters and songs which “ha[ve] been translated into more than eighteen tongues” (Lindsay 1994: 17). His works also express “the conflicts of the restless, experimental, revolutionary age he lived in” (Bentman 1987: Preface). This consequently delivers insights into the political, social and religious circumstances of his environment, making Burns an important figure to represent the identity of the 18th century Scottish nation.

Born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway, Burns lived with his parents, William and Agnes, in a “two-roomed thatched cottage” (Lindsay 1959: 36) as the first of seven children in poor circumstances. These circumstances were, in addition, tightened by the “short-lease system” (Lindsay 1959: 36) within the rural areas of Scotland which meant a steady rise of the lease caused by the increasing “value of the landlord’s property” (Lindsay 1959: 36). Thus, Burns got to know a life in “extreme poverty and isolation, while laboring constantly” (Bentman 1987: 2). These experiences he later described as the “cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave” (Bentman 1987: 2). Nevertheless, his father attached great importance to the education of his children, familiarizing Burns with selected readings by “Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, […] several popular eighteenth-century English authors” (Bentman 1987: 4), the Bible and readings of “theological, historical, and geographical” (Bentman 1987: 4) content. Other impacts on Burns’ development were “the modern ideas of the Enlightenment” (Bentman 1987: 5), as well as the “eighteenth-century Scottish Literature Revival” (Bentman 1987: 5) which resulted in a rekindled and clear national identity. Due to his readings of the “two important philosophers of the Enlightenment, John Locke and Adam Smith” (Bentman 1987: 5), Burns came to the belief that “humans are born intrinsically good and are corrupted by society” (Bentman 1987: 9).

Besides Burns’ humble parentage and the religious views that affected his life and creations, his social environment was also strongly influential to the author’s later works and his identity. Burns was 17 when the American Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, and so he found himself in “a period [in which] […] egalitarian ideals were being applied internationally” (Bold 1991: 101). This egalitarian attitude towards society was also mirrored in the admission criterion of his Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club, founded in 1780. Here, the Club Rules defined that no “self-conceited person, […] whose only will is to heap up money […] [was] admitted” (Low 1986: 8); it was the “cheerful, honest-hearted lad” (Low 1986: 8) who was welcome. His animosity against avarice was later strengthened by a tragic occurrence within his family: When his father was not able to pay the rent, an officer was sent “to ‘sequestrate’ cattle, crops, and farm gear as surety against payment of rent” (Low 1986: 10). Exhausted by the stress of a following unsuccessful petition and existential fear his father finally died in 1784. Burns described this episode of his life with the words “when my father died, his all went among the rapacious hell-hounds that growl in the kennel of justice” (Low 1986: 10).

But it was not only his ardor for the American Revolution and the death of his father that abetted Burns to write about the criticized political circumstances in Scotland and let him uphold his belief in the worth of the common people. The French Revolution in 1789 also affected Burns’ writings as well as his actions. To support the revolutionary France he, for example, captured a smuggling brig with other excise-men, purchased four carronades and dispatched them to the French Assembly (Bold 1991: 102). Until his death in 1796 Burns had seen both sides of society: From being a poor farmer’s son to being lionized as a celebrity, “without whom a smart party in the capital was not considered complete” (Lindsay 1959: 37), back to living the normal life of a farmer and finally working as “an officer in the Dumfries Port Division of the Excise” (Lindsay 1959: 37).

Regarding the historical context that surrounded Burns and influenced his beliefs, it is hardly surprising that his “personal circumstances always strongly affected his writing” (Low 1986: 13). Hence, the following is aimed at illustrating how the poet gives utterance to his political beliefs by using the example of his song “A man’s a man for a’ that” published in 1795. For this, the historical circumstances in Scotland at times of Robert Burns will be reflected at first, followed by a content-related analysis of the song which shall finally shed light on the personal positioning Burns adopts in this work towards the subversive conditions of his time.

2. The historical Circumstances in Scotland during the 18th Century

As to Scotland, the 18th century can be seen as a period of changes. After Scotland had already been crisis-shaken in the end of the 17th century which resulted “in many famine-related deaths and a marked increase in emigration” (Devine 1999: 49), the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707 “offered a new framework for Scottish economic development but no guarantees of success” (Lynch 2007: 198). Whereas this act of political fusion has been appreciated by the Kingdom of England as a strengthening for its national security, in Scotland, however, an “overwhelming popular opposition to the loss of the parliament and angry hostility to the whole idea of an ‘incorporating’ union” (Devine 1999: 16) occurred. Hence, rebellions ensued, namely the ‘First Jacobite Rising’ in 1715 and the ‘Second Jacobite Rising’ in 1745.

Later on, other radical protests were raised on the political as well as on the social level. The exclusion from the elections which were limited “to approximately 0.2 per cent of Scotland’s population in the later eighteenth century” (Devine 1999: 196) was a significant political inequality. This electoral manipulation led to a “parliamentary bill [that] was drafted to correct burghal abuses, extend the franchise to all burgesses and establish annual elections” (Devine 1999: 202). This event as well as the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 caused political discussions “of reform ideas well beyond the political classes” (Devine 1999: 203) which were finally tightened by Tom Paine’s publication ‘Rights of Man’. Its content was clear: The political system was accused of being corrupt, the aristocracy was blamed of “being incapable of reforming themselves” (Devine 1999: 204), and a universal franchise was claimed based on the lack of understanding that only those “who owned landed property could be trusted to govern” (Devine 1999: 204). These revolutionary thoughts were, on the one hand, promoted by the given social circumstances such as extreme high meal and corn prices, an accelerated displacement of country workers and the beginning dependence of the industry on the volatility of international markets (Devine 1999: 216). On the other hand, thoughts born by the advent of the Enlightenment such as Hutcheson’s belief that any “man had an inalienable right to enjoy freedom of opinion and to resist the tyranny of oppressive rulers” (Devine 1999: 198 f.) also affected the upcoming revolutionary ideas of the last decades of the 18th century. Like Hutcheson, Burns also made his beliefs public, albeit in a more poetic way. How his enlightened and revolutionary thoughts were exactly expressed will now be investigated based on his song “A man’s a man for a’ that“.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Robert Burns’ “A man’s a man for a’ that” as a Poetic Illustration of his Revolutionary Political Beliefs
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
18th- and 19th-Century Scottish Poetry
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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487 KB
Robert Burns, A mans a man, Scottish Literature
Quote paper
Agnetha Hinz (Author), 2014, Robert Burns’ “A man’s a man for a’ that” as a Poetic Illustration of his Revolutionary Political Beliefs, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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