A Night Out with Robert Burns: The greatest poems, ed Andrew O'Hagan

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The Independent Culture

In his introduction to "A Man's a man for a' that", Andrew O'Hagan proclaims Burns "the world's greatest and most loveable poet". You could make a case for the latter adjective, but not, I submit, the former. At all. However, these are fighting words for a fighting poet.

O'Hagan takes the reader through the gallimaufry of hope and horror that was Burns's life: the children, legitimate and illegitimate (both equally adored), and the many, many women. We know little of how it felt for them, of course, but his wife's observation that Robbie "should have had twa' wives" puts it nicely.

The poems are introduced individually, sometimes with a deeply apposite quotation: for example, Muhammad Ali's refusal to serve in Vietnam faces "A Slave's Lament". The Lallans Scots dialect (or language) is glorious, and the glossary throws up some beauties. But, again, if Burns is our "greatest poet", and "A Man's a man for a' that" his "greatest poem", then this poem is our greatest poem, and that's quite problematic.

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