Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, the son of a tenant farmer. His father died in 1784, and Burns became head of the household, but he had already started writing poetry. On July 3, 1786, he published his Poems, Chiefly in a Scottish Dialect, in nearby Kilmarnock, to enormous success in both countryside and city. Burns left his farm for Edinburgh on November 27, 1786, but the fame and attention he received there put him ill at ease; he never found a comfortable place in contemporary society’s class distinctions.
The Poems earned Burns fame in his lifetime, but little money. He published a second, enlarged, edition in Edinburgh in 1787, but by the summer of 1788 had taken up tenant farming again, in Ellisland, Dumfriesshire, where he struggled. He kept up an active literary and intellectual life, and obtained a post in the excise service in 1789. He moved to Dumfries in 1791, and lived there until his death on July 21, 1796, of chronic rheumatic heart disease.
Burns is a national hero. Known affectionately as “Rabbie,” his works are unmatched by any other Scottish artist as a source of national pride. His birthday, January 25th, or “Burns Night,” is celebrated throughout the country and by Scots and admirers around the world with a banquet - a haggis (a Scottish delicacy made from calf or sheep organ meat boiled in the stomach of the animal) as the centerpiece, ceremoniously addressed with Burns’s odes to haggis and whisky before being served.
Burns’s genius was his poetic use of the rhythms and dialects of everyday speech, and it was his personal mission to revive traditional Scottish song. He traveled the country, collecting tunes, airs, fragments of expressions and songs, and created songs whole, even writing words to folk tunes which had never had lyrics. He captured something of the Scottish spirit which has endured, and each generation has claimed him again as its own, even as Scotland has struggled in a search for identity. He is credited with “Auld Lang Syne”, and his best-known poems include “Scots, Wha Hae,” “Tam O’Shanter,” and “To a Mouse.”
Not long after the unveiling of Sir Walter Scott in 1872, a committee formed to erect a monument to Burns; a year later, specifying only the material and colossal size, it selected the same sculptor, John Steell, to create Scott’s bronze counterpart. Steell was born in Aberdeen, the son of a wood carver, and studied at the Trustees Academy, and in Rome. He became a member of The Royal Scottish Academy, and in 1838 was appointed Sculptor of the Queen of Scotland, producing numerous public and private art commissions, and managing a foundry, which introduced the art of bronze casting to Scotland.
Steel’s melodramatic conception depicts Burns seated on a tree stump, quill pen in hand, eyes turned heavenward in a pose of inspiration. At his feet is a poem dedicated to his lost love, Mary Campbell, and a plough alluding to his agrarian origins. The sculpture was unveiled on October 3, 1880, and the ceremony was attended by 5000 people, area Caledonian clubs in full Highland dress, and 100 distinguished guests, with music by Grafulla’s Band.
Wallace Bruce wrote “Walter Scott’s Greeting to Robert Burns,” whose first lines read: “We greet you Rabbie here tonight; Beneath these stars so pure and bright; we greet you, Poet, come at last; With Will [Shakespeare] and me your lot to cast.” Robert Burns also joined the 1876 statue of American poet Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867), whose 1822 poem “Burns” read in part, “But what to them the sculptor’s art; His funeral columns, wreaths and urns? Wear they not graven on the heart, the name of Robert Burns.”
In 1940 Parks’s monuments crew reconstructed the statue’s unstable pedestal, and it was rebuilt again in 1993; the quill, missing, was replicated, and the sculpture conserved through the Adopt-A-Monument Program, a joint venture of the Municipal Art Society, Parks and the New York City Art Commission. The restoration was funded by the Saint Andrew’s Society, which established a fund for ongoing care. On October 26, 1996, hundreds gathered here for the bicentennial of Burns’s death; world-renowned folk singer Jean Redpath performed, and the event was supported by the Burns Society of the City of New York, the American-Scottish Foundation, the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, the New Caledonian Club, and Scottish Heritage USA.
Robert Burns Details
- Sculptor: Sir John Steell
- Description: Seated figure (over life-size) with scroll and plough at feet, on pedestal
- Materials: Figure--bronze; Pedestal--brick core topped and faced with granite
- Dimensions: H: 14'10" W: 10' D: 10'
- Cast: ca. 1880
- Dedicated: October 2, 1880
- Donor: Scottish-Americans
- Inscription: 1) scroll at figure's feet: [ part of "To Mary in Heaven"]
2) pedestal front: "ROBERT BURNS"
3) pedestal rear: " PRESENTED / TO THE / CITY OF NEW YORK / BY ADMIRERS OF / SCOTIA'S PEASANT BARD / ON THE 121st ANNIVERSARY / OF HIS BIRTH."
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