Burns and Language: Inspiration

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you had a good Hogmanay!

It is the start of a new year and a point in time when we all need a bit of inspiration, whether it’s to enforce your new year’s resolution, turn over a new leaf, or motivate yourself for the final year of your PhD (like me)!

With that in mind, this week’s Burns Word of the Week is Inspiration, in the sense of “a breathing in or infusion of some idea, purpose, etc. into the mind; the suggestion, awakening, or creation of some feeling or impulse, esp. of an exalted kind (OED).

Although we have liked to think of Burns as the Bard inspired by Nature, as far as I can tell Burns never uses the word Inspiration in his poetry. He does, however, use it in one song (‘Lovely Davies’) and in nine letters. So when seeking Inspiration from Burns, we really have to dig for it!

Interestingly though, Burns often uses the term to talk about poetry and song. For instance, in a letter to Miss Alexander, when talking about a particularly special sight of the landscape of the banks of Ayr at sunset, Burns writes “what an hour of inspiration for a poet! It would have raised plain dull historic prose into metaphor measure.”

When writing to Thomson, who published many of his songs, Burns, when writing of “Coila’s native haunts”, referring to more natural scenery, speaks of “catching inspiration from her”.

So when in need of inspiration, Burns turns to nature; an idea that in itself inspired the Romantics. And in doing so the meaning seems to have transferred. The OED records Byron using the word Inspiration, in his ‘Prophecy of Dante’ to mean “Something inspired or infused into the mind; an inspired utterance or product” (OED). So we see the emergence of the idea of ‘inspired objects’. So the development of the meaning has gone from Burns’s inspiration from nature, to the Romatic’s natural inspiration.

The popular use of this transferred meaning of the term might have helped Burns’s posthumous reputation as the heaven-taught ploughman spread: Burns himself may have been seen as an ‘inspired object’.

So, in tracking the word Inspiration we can see how Burns was inspired by nature, and then a new generation was inspired by his Inspiration. Inspiration, it seems, can be handed down to others. Let’s hope some of that Inspiration reaches us for our New Year!

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