Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote many classic poems and songs, so whittling down his complete works to just ten recommendations has been hard. Nonetheless, there are a few poems that simply have to be on any list of Burns’s best poems, so we hope that most of our choices here won’t seem too perverse or controversial. But which is Robert Burns’s finest poem? We’ve presented the selection below in order, concluding with what we think is Burns’s best poem, but really there were a good four or five that could’ve taken the top spot. You can get hold of all of Burns’s poems by buying The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns.
The word ‘Hallowe’en’ first appears in print as ‘Halhalon’ in 1556 – it’s a Scottish word, and this Scottish connection was continued by Robert Burns in this long poem from 1785. This Burns poem is often recited at Halloween in Scotland and deftly mixes the English and Scots languages.
The poem focuses on the various practices and traditions associated with the festival every year: cutting of the apple, and winnowing of the corn that’s been harvested that autumn. But it also covers the more familiar aspects of the season, including fairies and mischief-making. Although the poem refers to frights, it also emphasises the fun and joy of the occasion, as an excuse for the family to get together and engage in games, pranks, storytelling, and dancing.
Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the rout is ta’en,
Beneath the moon’s pale beams;
There, up the Cove, to stray an’ rove,
Amang the rocks and streams
To sport that night …
We have more great Halloween poems here.
2. ‘The Banks o’ Doon’.
Ye banks and braes o’ bonie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care!
Thou’ll break my heart, thou warbling bird,
That wantons thro’ the flowering thorn:
Thou minds me o’ departed joys,
Departed never to return …
A short song, ‘Ye Banks an’ Braes o’ Bonnie Doon’ (as it’s also known) is about looking at the natural world while one is full of worries and cares because one’s love has been untrue. The natural world continues to be fair and carefree, the birds sing merrily, but the speaker of the poem is filled with woe. Burns wrote three versions of this poem; we’ve linked to the third version above.
3. ‘John Anderson My Jo’.
John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo …
One of Burns’s finest love poems or love songs, this: ‘jo’ is slang for ‘sweetheart’, and the speaker of the poem is a woman addressing her ageing husband, reassuring him that although his hair may be greying (what remains of it), he is still her ‘jo’ and they will go ‘hand in hand’ together through life. There was also a bawdy version, which Burns probably knew – though it’s the clean version that tends to get anthologised.
4. ‘To a Louse’.
In this poem, written in the Habbie dialect, Burns muses upon the louse that he spots crawling on a lady’s bonnet in church – the louse does not observe class distinctions and regards all human beings equally, as potential hosts:
Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place …
As Burns concludes, ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!’ Such a power or ability would save us a lot of bother and ‘foolish notions’; but we cannot see ourselves as others see us. The one thing we cannot do is take the view of that louse.
5. ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’.
O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell,
Who, as it pleases best Thysel’,
Sends ane to heaven an’ ten to hell,
A’ for Thy glory,
And no for ony gude or ill
They’ve done afore Thee …
This poem shows just what a great satirical poet Burns could be. Like John Betjeman’s later poem ‘In Westminster Abbey’, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ uses the idea of a prayer to expose religious hypocrisy and ruthless self-preservation – here, the self-preservation of ‘Holy Willie’, a church elder.
6. ‘A Red, Red Rose’.
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune …
Possibly based on a traditional lyric, this poem – also called ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ – is one of the most widely anthologised love poems in English. Bob Dylan called it his single biggest inspiration. And did the final two lines inspire The Proclaimers to write ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’? One cannot choose but wonder.
Certainly, the poem reads like a song: it’s a lyric, through and through, with the abcb rhyme scheme and the tetrameter and trimeter metre recalling the traditional ballads (associated, fittingly enough, with the Scottish Borders).
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that …
Also known by its first line, ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’, ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ (i.e. ‘for all that’) laments the fact that equality does not exist among men. The poem ends with the heartfelt call ‘That man to man the world o’er, / Shall brothers be for a’ that.’ The poem was sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
8. ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
And surely ye’ll be your pint stowp!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’kindness yet,
For auld lang syne …
Although it’s often attributed to Burns, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (i.e. ‘old long since’ or ‘a long time ago’) was based on a traditional song which Burns wrote down, in an attempt to preserve the traditional oral culture of his country. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is among the most recognisable poems or songs written in English, thanks to its popularity at New Year celebrations around the world. The last line, by the way, should technically be ‘For auld lang syne’ rather than ‘For the sake of auld lang syne’ – the three extra syllables are usually added to avoid stretching that monosyllabic ‘For’ for – well, for a long, long time.
9. ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.
O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder wi’ the Miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller …
A longer poem than many on this list, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ follows the titular hero, an Ayrshire farmer fond of drink and spending time with his mates, and not so fond of getting home to his increasingly impatient wife. The name of the tea clipper the Cutty Sark comes from this poem (it’s the nickname of Nannie Dee in Burns’s poem), while the name of the poem’s hero (if ‘hero’ is quite the word) has been applied to the hats or caps worn by Scottish men ever since.
10. ‘To a Mouse’.
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
So begins this classic Burns poem, the full title of which is ‘To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785’. That full title explains what the poem is about – and it was probably based on a real event, when Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest while ploughing a field. (Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Mower’ might be viewed as the modern, domestic version of such a poem.)
The poem inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men with its line, ‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley’ (that is, often go awry). We’ve compiled some of our other favourite mouse poems here.
What would you name as Robert Burns’s best poem? If you’d like to read more of Burns’s poems, we’d recommend the great-value The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns.
If you enjoyed this pick of Burns’s best, check out our selection of classic William Blake poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Robert Burns, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Image (bottom): Statue of Robert Burns at Eglinton Country Park, Irvine, North Ayrshire, Scotland (author: Roger Griffith), Wikimedia Commons.