What is a Burns Stanza?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Burns Stanza, a style of Scottish poetry.

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The Burns Stanza is a form of poetry made famous by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and used in many of his poems.

History

While the Burns Stanza is named after Robert Burns, it was not invented by him. Originally, the form was known as the Standard Habbie, named after the piper Habbie Simpson, after Robert Sempill used the form in his poem ‘Lament for Habbie Simpson; or, the Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan.’

Prior to this, the form can be found throughout Provençal poetry, dating back to the 13th or 14th Century, where it can be found in the work Romance of Octovian.

The form was used extensively by Lowland Scots poets, including Robert Ferguson and Robert Burns himself, who used the form in several of his notable works including ‘To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough,’ ‘To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church’ and Address to the Deil.’ Burns’ work grew to such high repute that eventually the form became known as his.

Form

There are two rules that go into a Burns Stanza. Firstly, the six-line rhyme scheme:

A
A
A
B
A
B

Because of the repetition of the A rhyme, it is wise to pick a common sound, like a hard ‘ee’ sound.

Secondly, the A lines are formed in tetrameter, meaning there are four metrical feet in each line. The B lines are written in dimeter, which we don’t see often but mean there are two metrical feet, or 4 syllables to the line. These B lines can be repeated.

Due to the limitations of a dimetric line, we often see these B lines make use of contractions, which fit perfectly with the Scots dialect.

There is a variation to the form with a variant rhyme scheme:

A
A
B
C
C
C
B

This form can be found within the works of W. H. Auden, notably ‘Brother, who when the sirens roar.’ In this form, the B lines remain dimetric.

Use

Originally, the Burns Stanza was strictly lyrical, though in the hands of Burns and his peers, there was a movement towards comic or satirical verse. Because of the short lines, it is not particularly suited towards lengthy meditation, although its short length did grant it popularity for social comment.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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