Sunday, 25 January 2009

Burns Night

A Night Out with Robert Burns, arranged by Andrew O’Hagan (Canongate, 2009)

I was first surprised, and then delighted, when this book arrived out of the blue – I had forgotten that I had requested it on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers. Coming in to my room with a morning cup of tea, OH raised an eyebrow to see me sitting in bed reading Burns, and enquired what I had done to deserve it. I’m enjoying myself, I replied, without a trace of martyrdom.

Andrew O’Hagan’s short introduction to this collection of 41 of Burns’s most famous poems is
part history, part memoir, so that we learn the brief outline of Burns’s life while absorbing a certain amount about O’Hagan’s own Ayrshire background. This contextualising of one poet’s relationship to another is continued in the selection of poetry. Divided into The Lasses, The Drinks, The Immortals and The Politics (with a certain amount of overlap between), the poems are each prefaced by a short comment or, occasionally, a modern quote. These glosses have the effect of creating a link between the poet’s experience and our own, and of helping to make a pathway into some of the longer poems, especially those made less accessible, for some, by use of broader Scots (Burns wrote variously in Scots, Scottish English and English).

O’Hagan has chosen a varied selection, which give a good idea of the range of Burns’s interests, which ranged far beyond “the lasses” – his politics were fiery, and his rants against hypocrisy and injustice did nothing to endear him to the establishment of the day. Indeed, it did no harm to his reputation as Scotland’s national poet that he died so conveniently young! Although a relatively slim volume, it contains some of the longer poems, such as The Holy Fair and Tam O’Shanter (it would be hard to imagine a Burns collection without the latter). Burns wrote many of his poems to traditional Scottish melodies, and I found it impossible to read the first section, The Lasses, without music running through my head. Burns was a major contributor to collections of Scottish music, writing both original lyrics and
revising others, and wrote of the process:
I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. When I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper…
Readers will find many old friends such as A Red, Red Rose and Green Grow the Rashes, as well as some which may be less familiar, such as Parcel of Rogues. There's a short glossary to help with the language, necessary in these days of linguistic homogenisation. If you think you’d like to add some Burns to your bookshelf, this well-chosen collection is the book to do it with. On this Burns Night, the 250th anniversary of his birth, there’s haggis and neeps to look forward to for dinner (bliss). The fruit salad which will follow it is hardly traditional in a country which thinks the apple is dangerously exotic but it will be followed by a wee dram of the bard’s favourite drink. Poor
Burns, it must have been hard for him, a man who loved to celebrate the joys of life, to end his life as an exciseman, and I’m not sure that his end wasn’t made sadder by the gross sentimentalisation that began after his death, and has persisted ever since. In recent years, however, his reputation has been emerging from the maudlin image of the “heaven-born ploughman”, and his lyricism, fire and wit are better appreciated.
Burns Statue, Dumfries

Chorus.-Ca'the yowes* to the knowes,
Ca' them where the heather grows,
Ca' them where the burnie rowes,
My bonie Dearie.

Hark the mavis' e'ening sang,
Sounding Clouden's woods amang;
Then a-faulding let us gang,
My bonie Dearie.

We'll gae down by Clouden side,
Thro' the hazels, spreading wide,
O'er the waves that sweetly glide,
To the moon sae clearly.

Yonder Clouden's silent towers,
Where, at moonshine's midnight hours,
O'er the dewy-bending flowers,
Fairies dance sae cheery.

Ghaist nor bogle shalt thou fear,
Thou'rt to Love and Heav'n sae dear,
Nocht of ill may come thee near;
My bonie Dearie.

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die-but canna part,
My bonie Dearie.

* yowes = sheep


  1. Very lovely post. Perhaps time to purchase this Robert Burns book prior to a return visit to my father's homeland this summer.

  2. This sounds like a great book. Thanks for the review.

  3. Becca, I think this is an excellent way of reading some Burns before a visit. I hope that Scotland will welcome you with a better summer than we've had in recent years.

    Lisa and Charlotte, it's a pleasure to be able to recommend a book about Burns - I felt that I liked his work despite the way I was taught about him at school, but I can imagine all sorts of people discovering him through this volume (possibly helped by the endorsement on the cover by Ewan McGregor!)

  4. great poetry - thanks for posting!