Robert Burns used it throughout some fifty poems that he wrote. But, he was not the first to utilize it. Prior to his use of the stanza, it was known as the standard Habbie. It was named for Habbie Simpson, a piper from the 16th century. It’s also sometimes referred to as the Scottish stanza. Other writers may call it a six-line stave. The stanza form can be found in poetry dating back to the Middle Ages.
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Definition of the Burns Stanza
The Burns stanza was a popular stanza form that used six lines and originated in the Middle Ages. It was popular among Scottish poets, like Robert Burns and Robert Ferguson, but was first used by Robert Sempill in a poem about Habbie Simpson. The first poem written in this form was ‘Lament for Habbie Simpson; or, the Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan.’
The stanza is six lines long and uses a rhyme scheme of AAABAB. The ‘A’ lines are written in tetrameter, and the ‘B’ lines in dimeter. This means that the first, second, third, and fifth lines contain a total of eight beats, divided into groups of two. The fourth and sixth lines contain a total of four syllables, divided into two groups of two. There are some instances in which the final ‘B’ line is not used. Another variation uses AABCCCB.
Examples of Burns Stanza Poems
To a Mouse by Robert Burns
‘To a Mouse’ is one of the best examples of Robert Burns’ use of the Burns stanza. Its full title is ‘To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November 1785,’ and it was written in 1785. The story around this poem describes Burns plowing and accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest. But, others have disputed this. The first two stanzas, in the original Scots, read:
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a pannic’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!
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
The rhyme scheme is clear in this version with “beastie,” “breastie,” “hasty,” and “thee” rhyming and “brattle” and “prattle” rhyming. Plus, the metrical use of tetrameter and dimeter is also evident in these stanzas.
Address to the Deli by Robert Burns
‘Address to the Deli’ is one of several poems that Burns wrote in this six-line form. It was published in Kilmarnock in 1786 and written the year before in Mossgiel. The poem depicts the devil in a humorous tone. There are numerous references to other literary works, such as Pope’s The Dunciad and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Consider these opening lines from the poem:
O THOU! whatever title suit thee—
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie,
Wha in yon cavern grim an’ sootie,
Clos’d under hatches,
Spairges about the brunstane cootie,
To scaud poor wretches!
The rhyme scheme of the burns stanza is quite obvious in these lines with “thee,” “Clootiee,” “sootie,” and “cootie” rhyming and “hatche” and “wretches” (mostly) rhyming. Another stanza to consider is:
Hear me, auld Hangie, for a wee,
An’ let poor damned bodies be;
I’m sure sma’ pleasure it can gie,
Ev’n to a deil,
To skelp an’ scaud poor dogs like me,
An’ hear us squeel!
Again, the rhyme scheme is obvious with “wee,” “be,” “gie,” and “me” rhyming and “deil” and “squeel” rhyming. Also, readers can note the use of tetrameter and dimeter. The first three lines and the fifth line have eight syllables while the fourth and sixth have four.
To a Louse by Robert Burns
One final example of this form can be found in ‘To a Louse.’ This poem was written in 1786 in the standard Habbie form. Its full title is ‘To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church.’ The first two stanzas read:
Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlan ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gawze and lace;
Tho’ faith, I fear ye dine but sparely,
On sic a place.
Ye ugly, creepan, blastet wonner,
Detested, shunn’d, by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a Lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,
On some poor body.
Read more Robert Burns poems.
Why Do Poets Use the Burns Stanza?
Poets use the Burns stanza due to the interesting way in which the rhymes and rhythm work together. Historically, poets engaged with the form for formal reasons alone but, as time passed, a poet might choose to use this form in order to reference its broader history.
If someone uses the Burns stanza today, they are clearly alluding to its literary history. This is something that all writers have to be aware of. The steady use of rhyme throughout the stanza can also be appealing for readers and writers, as is the loose but still consistent rhyme scheme. Although the lines use tetrameter and dimeter, there is no requirement for them to be iambic or trochaic.
The Burns stanza is important because of its historical use. It was incredibly influential on the poetry of Robert Burns, one of the most important Scottish poets of all time. This influence spread among his contemporaries and into the following generations.
Robert Burns’ poetry was admired during his lifetime, but after his death became far more popular. It’s still studied to this day for its influence on the development of Scottish poetry more generally.
The Burns stanza was first used by Robert Sempill in a poem about Habbie Simpson. The first poem written in this form was ‘Lament for Habbie Simpson; or, the Life and Death of the Pipr of Kilbarchan.’ It was initially referred to as the standard Habbie.
Yes, like all poetic forms, there is always going to be someone who is interested in using it. There are several variations, such as that used by W.H. Auden, that are also still influential. But, on the whole, most poets have moved away from structured poetic forms.
Related Literary Terms
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
- Cinquain: a poetic form that makes use of a pattern of five lines.
- Dramatic Monologue: a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond.
- Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
- Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Octave: comes from the Latin word meaning “eighth part.” It is an eight-line stanza or poem.