‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ written by Robert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland, is an epitaph, composed 10 years before the poet’s actual death in 1796. Through this epitaph, the poet presents a sketch of his life. Moreover, how the poet thought and worked his part are the major points of this poem. Alongside the mixed-use of Scottish dialect and English presents how the culture of Scotland flourished side by side with the English culture. Being a representative poet of Scotland, his epitaph should touch these aspects. However, at the end of the poem, there is a moral message to the readers that must guide one soaring higher in “fancy’s flight”.
Summary of A Bard’s Epitaph
‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns talks about the poet’s imaginary grave in the first stanza. It draws the attention of the people who throng around it at times. Moreover, the lines written in the poet’s grave remind of his contribution to Scottish literary tradition. There is a wise person who stands by the grave of the poet. Even the person drops a tear to see the “whim-inspired fool” who once pleased people with his rusting songs. Whereas in the last two stanzas, the poet talks about his mindless follies that stained his “name”. At last, the poet requests the readers to learn from his life. One should know that prudence, alertness, and self-control are the three ingredients that make one wise in life.
Structure of A Bard’s Epitaph
‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns consists of five six-line stanzas. In this poem, the poet uses the rhyme scheme invented by him. For reference, the rhyme scheme of the poem is “AAABCB” and it goes on like this in the following stanzas. Thus, each sestain begins with a rhyming tercet and the following tercet contains alternative rhyming lines. Moreover, the metrical scheme of the poem is regular. The overall poem is composed of iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter alternatively. However, some lines begin with a trochaic foot. As an example, in the third stanza, the line, “Wild as the wave”, contains a trochaic foot in the beginning. And, in the last stanza, the first foot of the first line contains a trochaic foot.
Literary Devices in A Bard’s Epitaph
‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns begins with a metaphor. Here, the poet compares himself to a “whim-inspired” or fanciful fool. There is a repetition in the following two lines and those lines contain anaphora. Moreover, in “grassy heap” the poet uses a synecdoche. Here, the poet refers to his grave. In the second stanza, there is an apostrophe in “O, pass not by!” In the line following it, the poet uses a hyperbaton. This stanza also contains alliterations in “frater-feeling” and “Here, heave”. In the third stanza, “life’s mad career” is a metaphor, and the line “Wild as the wave” presents a simile. Moreover, in “starting tear” and in the sixth stanza, “But thoughtless follies laid him low” the poet uses personification. However, the last two lines present an epigram.
Analysis of A Bard’s Epitaph
Is there a whim-inspired fool,
Owre fast for thought, owre hot for rule,
Owre blate to seek, owre proud to snool,
Let him draw near;
And owre this grassy heap sing dool,
And drap a tear.
‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns begins with a humorous tone. The poet metaphorically calls himself a “whim-inspired fool”. It means the fanciful thoughts of the poet. Moreover, he says he was too fast to think and too hot-headed to accept rules. For his shyness, he restrained himself from seeking and his pride blocked his mind from stooping to someone for insight. Thereafter, the poet requests the readers to come near to his grave and think about his poetic contributions. Burns thinks his death might cause one to drop a tear. However, the mood of the last line becomes emotional in comparison to that of the first line.
Is there a bard of rustic song,
Who, noteless, steals the crowds among,
That weekly this area throng,
O, pass not by!
But, with a frater-feeling strong,
Here, heave a sigh.
‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns highlights the quality of the poet’s compositions and how his countrymen feel about him. Burns was popular for his “rustic” poetry that has the essence of rural Scotland. Moreover, the poet says his grave steals the crowds from the other poet’s grave, and the crowd throngs around his grave weekly. By using a litote, the poet says they don’t pass by. Rather, people feel sad about the loss of one of their brothers. With a strong brotherly feeling, they heave a sigh to think about the dead poet.
Is there a man, whose judgment clear
Can others teach the course to steer,
Yet runs, himself, life’s mad career,
Wild as the wave,
Here pause-and, thro’ the starting tear,
Survey this grave.
The third stanza of ‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns refers to a specific man standing among the crowd. He appears to be wide and judgemental. The poet thinks he can teach others how to live life wisely. But, he is also busy in his career like the poet. His professional life controls him like a boat floating on the wild sea. The person is as restless as the poet was in his life. Such a person can understand the poet’s state of mind better. That’s why he surveys the grave and tear trickles down.
The poor inhabitant below
Was quick to learn the wise to know,
And keenly felt the friendly glow,
And softer flame;
But thoughtless follies laid him low,
And stain’d his name!
The fourth stanza of ‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns anticipates what might have tarnished the poet’s name. According to Burns, he was quick to learn something new and he was wise. Moreover, the poet says once he had many friends and felt the “softer flame” of friendship and brotherhood. The feeling of camaraderie is like a “flame” that ignites one’s soul unlike the flames of passion that burn the heart. At last, the poet says the “thoughtless follies” stained his “name”. He doesn’t shy away from accepting his flaws.
Reader, attend! whether thy soul
Soars fancy’s flights beyond the pole,
Or darkling grubs this earthly hole,
In low pursuit:
Know, prudent, cautious, self-control
Is wisdom’s root.
The last stanza of ‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns, using an apostrophe, alerts the readers. The poet specifically draws the attention of those who soar in fanciful thoughts leaping over the limits. And, he refers to those who pursue lowly dreams. The poet advises them to know the value of prudence, awareness, and self-control. These three qualities form the foundation of a wise person.
Historical Context of A Bard’s Epitaph
‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns was composed in 1786, 10 years before the poet’s death. In this poem, the poet anticipates how people would remind him after his death. However, Robert Burns is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement that flourished in the last decade of the 18th century. Likewise, in this poem, there are several romantic elements. Moreover, the poet also presents his liberal mindset and socialist bent in the association of the poet as a voice of rural Scotland. That’s why he was also known as the “Ploughman Poet”.
Like ‘A Bard’s Epitaph’ by Robert Burns, the following poems are similar to the theme present in Burns’ poem.
- Ae Fond Kiss by Robert Burns – Like his ‘A Red, Red Rose’, ‘For a’ That and a’ That’, ‘To a Mouse’, and ‘A Bard’s Epitaph’, it is also an emotional poem that touches one’s heart.
- Epitaph for an Old Woman by Octavio Paz – Here, Octavio Paz talks about the death of an old woman.
- Epitaph to a Dog by Lord Byron – In this, one of his best poems, Lord Byron commemorates the sad death of his dog, Boatswain.
- Epitaph on a Hare by William Cowper – Here, William Cowper describes the relationship between a pet hare and his owner.
You can read about 10 Incredible Poems about Death here.