Home » Victorian Authors List » Robert Burns Biography » “Sweet Afton”: Critical Detailed Analysis And Summary

“Sweet Afton”: Critical Detailed Analysis And Summary


Another lyrical poem by Robert Burns titled “Sweet Afton” describes the place called Afton Water in Scotland. Robert Burns composed it in 1791 and Jonathan E. Spilman adapted it to music in 1837 under the title Flow gently.

The poem got first published as a song in the Scots Musical Museum, which is still sung today.

There are several monosyllables in “Sweet Afton”, which may add to the song’s mellow pace. It can be interpreted as a hymn for peace. Moreover, it has a metrical structure that consists of 11-11-11-11.  In the 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Marsha Hunt’s Mary Bennett sings the song. In the year 1961, in a show called “Mayberry Goes Hollywood”, a resident of Mayberry serenades a visiting film producer by singing “Sweet Afton”.

A plaque honouring Robert Burns and this outstanding poetry can be found on the A76 Bridge that spans Afton Water in the East Ayrshire town of New Cumnock.

Moreover, The Glen of Afton which was named after the Afton of New Cumnock has associations with William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots (1568), Robert the Bruce, and Robert Burns.

A theory that Wallace’s father was from Kyle Regis and a rock formation “up the glen” is named Castle William, supposedly after the Scottish patriot’s fortification was widely popular and it has been given substance by the Wallace seal of the Lubeck Letter of 1297.


“Sweet Afton” is a poem that described the Afton Water in the place of Ayrshire in Scotland. The poem is divided into six stanzas and each of them is made up of four lines. So, we can observe that the poem consists of twenty-four lines in total.

Apart from that, a glance into the poem shows that it has been written using first-person narrative and the poet himself can be assumed to be the speaker of this poem.


Most likely Robert Burns wrote this poem around 1789. A copy of this poem is claimed to have been given to Mrs Dunlop on February 5 of that year along with the note;

“There is a small river, Afton that falls into the Nith, near New Cumnock which has some charming, wild, romantic scenery on its banks”

However, Jonathan E. Spilman didn’t compose the song until 1837, when he gave it the tune “Flow slowly, sweet Afton”. Additionally, this line is frequently sung to the melody of the well-known Christmas carol “Away in a Manger.”

Sweet Afton Analysis

Stanza 1

In the opening stanza, the author addresses the Afton Water directly and commands it to wander indolently among the hills clothed in trees that surround it. He has intended to extol the Afton Water, by promising to sing a song which is the one we are reading presently. The poet shifts his attention towards his dozed-off beloved on the banks of Afton. For his sweetheart to continue dreaming without being disturbed, he requested the Afton to flow silently.

Stanza 2

In the second stanza, he took the responsibility to keep the birds silent so that his beloved does not wake up. He started by addressing the dove whose voice reverberated around the valley where the Afton is situated. Then he addresses the whistling blackbirds that are nestled among the sharp briars. Finally, he addresses the lapwing, whose high-pitched sound posed like a scream to him. He asks the birds to quiet down because he fears they may wake up his loved one.

Stanza 3

The Afton Water has been addressed once more in this poem. He informs Afton that the area’s hills are exceedingly tall, and he adds that the stream follows a clearly defined path across those hills as it flows. He wants to be vigilant about his flock of sheep and the cottage where his beloved Mary resides, the poet roams the area about noon when the sun is high in the sky.

Stanza 4

The poet appreciates the natural beauty of the area that is surrounding the Afton Water. The surroundings are heavily calming to the senses and the valley is not entirely deserted. It has been covered with an abundance of wildflowers, and primroses. The poet then goes forward with the description of how he and his sweetheart frequently spend their evenings, under the shelter and fragrant shade of the birch tree.

Stanza 5

The poet describes how the water of Afton shines as a crystal when exposed to sunlight. Mary’s cottage is situated by the same creek, which slowly operates by it. When Mary goes to collect flower clusters from the Afton Water’s banks, her feet often get in the way of the water’s flow. However, the water only lightly scrubs her feet. The poet is delighted by the sight of this.

Stanza 6

This verse resembles the first stanza almost verbatim. Here the author expressly declares that Afton Water is the topic of his poem by requesting that it flow leisurely. It takes the Afton Water to flow quietly at the poem’s conclusion so as not to disturb his beloved Mary while she is fast asleep and interrupt whatever dream she may be enjoying.

Sweet Afton Theme

Pastoral poem

The poem “Sweet Afton” is a pastoral poem about shepherds in their countryside and it seemingly offers us a straightforward rhyme pattern. It consists of rhyming couplets. The third line of the poem, states that the speaker goes around the valleys below the Afton Water caring for his flock of sheep, further establishing the speaker’s status as a shepherd.

He talks about living simply, and far from the bustle of the city, in the middle of nature. Burn’s poetry is frequently centred on these types of characters. He wrote about the daily lives of the common people of native Scotland.

Mary’s Identity

There is a lot of controversy around the character Mary who has been referred to in this poem. Gilbert Burns, the poet’s brother, and Dr Currie, the poet’s first biographer, each had their distinct viewpoint on this matter. According to Dr Currie, the Mary in this poem is Mrs Stewart, which is previously Lady Stair, a benefactor who loved Burns’s poetry. If so, Burns is seeing himself as her lover and the proprietress of a huge estate as a humble cottage maiden.

On the other side, Gilbert Burns asserts that the Mary in “Sweet Afton” is Mary Campbell, a young lover of Robert Burns who perished away in real life. He started dating a notorious woman called Clarinda a little over a year after her passing. It is possible that his first biographer made up Mary’s name in order to hide his continued enthusiasm for a prior love interest. Unfortunately, none of these facts can be proven beyond the realm of doubt.

Literary Devices used in Sweet Afton

The poem’s stanzas are built with two significant pairs of rhyming couplets. As a result, each stanza seems to contain a rhyming pattern of AABB. The poet employs the apostrophe throughout this stanza. When a poet delivers a poem to a quiet or absent audience, the rhetorical method is used.

The Afton Water and the raucous birds that live nearby are addressed directly by the poet in this poem, but at no point do we witness their reactions to him. Thus, the technique of onomatopoeia is employed in the third line of the opening verse.

When a word is used to describe a sound, this rhetorical strategy is employed. The river’s sound as it passes through the New Cumnock’s hills and valleys is described by the poet in this passage as “murmuring”.

The poet employs metonymy in the fourth line of the second verse. This rhetorical technique involves using an attribute or adjunct’s name as a replacement for the item that is intended. Here, the poet refers to his beloved with the adjective “fair”. When he mentions the term “noon” in the third line of the third verse, he is utilizing metonymy once again.

Moreover, the poet employs the metaphorical method in the first line of the fifth stanza. Thus a rhetorical strategy is applied when a subliminal parallel is drawn between two unrelated objects or concepts. Since both shimmer in the sun so the poet makes Afton Water similar to a gem. In the third line of the same stanza, the poet uses this technique once more to compare Mary’s white feet to snow.


Who is Mary in Afton Water?

Mary Campbell, whom Burns was courting at the time the song was composed, was likely the Mary referenced in the poem. The River Afton enters the River Nith and New Cumnock in Ayrshire, Scotland.

Who was described as asleep in the Flow Gently Sweet Afton?

Additionally, he promises to sing a song possibly the one we are reading right now where he is praising the Afton Water. Next, the poet turns his focus to Mary, who was his beloved and who is dozing off on the banks of Afton.

What was sweet Afton before?

Robert Burns composed it in 1791, and Jonathan E. Spilman adapted it to music in 1837 under the title of “Flow Slowly”, sweet Afton.

Where is the Afton River?

The River Afton is the minor river in Ayrshire, Scotland, that travels eight miles down Glen Afton before entering the River Nith at New Cumnock.

What is the meaning of Afton?

Afton is a name of Scottish and Swedish origins that refers to gender-neutral. In Swedish, the word is often translated into “afternoon” or “evening” in Swedish but is a lovely option if a baby entered your life at this time of the day.