Burns's art is at its best in songs such as "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,""My Heart's in the Highlands," and "John Anderson My Jo." Two collections contain 268 of his songs—George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (6 vol., 1793–1811) and James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum (5 vol., 1787–1803). Some of these, such as "Auld Lang Syne" and "Comin' thro' the Rye," are among the most familiar and best-loved poems in the English language. But his talent was not confined to song; two descriptive pieces, "Tam o' Shanter" and "The Jolly Beggars," are among his masterpieces.
Burns had a fine sense of humor, which was reflected in his satirical, descriptive, and playful verse. His great popularity with the Scots lies in his ability to depict with loving accuracy the life of his fellow rural Scots, as he did in "The Cotter's Saturday Night." His use of dialect brought a stimulating, much-needed freshness and raciness into English poetry, but Burns's greatness extends beyond the limits of dialect. His poems are written about Scots, but, in tune with the rising humanitarianism of his day, they apply to a multitude of universal problems.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.