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A Night Out with Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems    Arranged by Andrew O'Hagan order for
Night Out with Robert Burns
by Andrew O'Hagan
Order:  USA  Can
Douglas Gibson, 2009 (2009)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

A Night Out with Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems (arranged by Andrew O'Hagan) aptly opens with A Birl for Burns by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, whose tribute includes: 'Leg-lifting, heartsome, lightsome Burns! / He overflowed the well-wrought urns / Like buttermilk from slurping churns, / Rich and unruly, / Or dancers flying, doing turns / At some wild hooley.'

In his Introduction, Andrew O'Hagan rolls out for readers in words 'a motion picture' of the operatic life of Robert Burns (1759-1796), explaining how one of the most celebrated poets of all time (Scotland's Shakespeare) died penniless at the age of thirty-seven, and speaking of the Burns cult that followed. O'Hagan tells us that Burns 'was a satirist of the first water', who 'can seem to be universal', and questions 'why is Burns so easy to market to the world?'

He explains that there are two very different audiences for Burns's work - 'those who wonder about the extent of his sympathy for the French Revolution, and those who want a few bonnie words on a plate to put on their kitchen wall.' This volume arose from a desire to mark the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth (January 25, 2009), with selected poems (each given fascinating context) classified into four categories: 'the lasses, the drinks, the immortals and the politics.'

In The Lasses, everyone knows A Red, Red Rose, but there are many more (Burns had thirteen children by various mothers) including A Poet's Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter; the First Instance that Entitled Him to the Venerable Appellation of Father. In The Drinks (which also includes Auld Lang Syne), while Khayyam spoke lyrically of a jug of wine, Burns prefers a stronger tipple: 'Fortune, if thou'll but gie me still / Hale breeks, a scone, an' Whisky gill, / An' rowth o' rhyme to rave at will, / Take a' the rest'.

In The Immortals, we find Address to the Deil: 'An' now, auld Cloots, I ken ye're thinkan, / A certain Bardie's rantin, drinkin, / Some luckless hour will send him linkan, / To your black pit; / But faith! he'll turn a corner jinkan, / An' cheat you yet' (a sentiment shared by all Burns fans!) And in The Politics, we find the well known To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785 and A Man's a Man for A' That, amongst other gems like Logan Braes (which O'Hagan dedicates to those lost in the war in Iraq) and which includes: 'O wae upon you, Men o' State, / That brethren rouse in deadly hate! / As ye make mony a fond heart mourn, / Sae may it on your heads return!'

Whether you find yourself alone on Burns Night (January 25th), or partying with a crowd of Scots, open up A Night Out with Robert Burns and let the 'poet's lyre' sing (with both sentiment and satire) through the air. As Heaney reminds us, 'And though his first tongue's going, gone, / And word lists now get added on. / ... / In Burns's rhymes they travel on / And won't be lost.'

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