Jonathan Cape £20 (466pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897; Canongate £7.99 (222pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Bard, By Robert Crawford
A Night Out with Robert Burns, Ed. Andrew O'Hagan

Robert Burns is an exceptional poet, unique in popularity, unique in voice. His work has never been out of print since his first collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in 1786 (when he was 27), and is cherished, as Robert Crawford points out, far beyond Scotland and Europe. Burns is also the most vernacular of the printed poets, certainly of those occupying the EngLit canon. Even today, in an era of performance poetry, with several brilliant Scots writers working in that genre, it's difficult to think of anyone who articulates their politics and passions on the page with such immediacy. It's a truism that great literature is grounded in the voice, but literary transmission changes that voice: it goes underground and emerges as style. Rarely is voice so utterly audible as it is in Burns – as we read him, it's as if we heard him speaking.

But he wasn't, of course, the untaught "Heaven-sent ploughboy" that admirers would later claim. Crawford's biography constructs a full and fascinating picture of the poet's patchy but nutritious early education. A working-class lad these days would be lucky to meet such strong, benign, intellectually aware authority-figures as, for example, kirk minister William Dalrymple, or John Murdoch, Burns's youthful tutor. Chief of longer-distance influences was the neglected Scots poet Robert Fergusson, said by some to have provided the model for Burns's "To a Mouse", in a less tenderly sympathetic, but also politically radical poem, "On seeing a Butterfly in the Street" ("Daft gowk! In macaroni dress"). Ossian, the legendary, third-century Scots Gaelic poet recently "discovered" by James MacPherson, provided the young republican idealist with another kind of image – that of the poet as national bard.

The concept gradually evolved. Claiming to have been sent to sleep by reading Thomas Warton's "Ode on the Birthday of King George the Third" (Warton was the royal laureate), Burns dreamed up a sharp-edged letter to the monarch, introducing himself with cap-doffing irony as "a humble Bardie". "Bardie", an affectionate diminutive of bard, as an adjective also means bold, quarrelsome. Crawford points out that, for Burns, "Being Bardie meant being Bolshie." This biography narrates how Burns stayed largely true to his bolshiness, even when he attained celebrity bardic status.

A great collector as well as re-writer of the people's songs, Burns was grounded, morally and artistically, by the folk-songs and tales of his earliest memories. By lucky chance, he then discovered the Augustan wits, and learnt from Pope and the other Scriblerians the happy art of literary conversation. But it was when he took up the "Standard Habbie", the jaunty stanzaic form also used by Fergusson and others, that he found a uniquely voice-friendly medium to equal the folk-song as his key to personal expression. Burns's sometimes amused but always sensitive awareness of his recipient permeates the verse-letters and gives them their glow and integrity.

The use of the Scots language is fundamental to Burns's politics and art. Cannily, a glossary was included with the bard's debut publication, and the habit continues among publishers today. Though essentially a countryman's language, with no trace of the "primsie" (affectedly nice), Scots is far from crude. The richness and precision of its naming makes it flexibly metaphorical and fully equal to complex thoughts. It has often struck me that Burns accomplished for Scots what Pushkin did for Russian. It was a people's language that each poet brought to perfection on the page – moreover, it was initially through the influence of kindly older women (in Pushkin's case, his nurse) that these poets, as children, were able to absorb the mother-tongue, and know its texture and music as if by instinct.

Crawford's biography benefits from his activities as distinguished scholar and poet. Like a good history teacher, he is quick to make simple but illuminating connections between the past and the present, and he employs modern concepts with tact and restraint. He writes interestingly about Burns's fits of "Hypochondria", connecting them to what we today would call depressive illness. It seems possible Burns was bi-polar and, if this is the case, his sometimes frenetic sexual pursuits and serial infidelities might not simply be attributable to bardie laddishness or bardic inspiration-seeking.

The ideal biographer must admire his subject but remain clear-eyed. Crawford is both partisan and sensible. He honours Burns's radicalism, emphasising his support for both American and French revolutions, and for democratic principles generally, noting a likely exchange of letters, sadly lost, with the feminist radical Mary Wollstonecraft. But while he enjoys the bolshiness, and values the egalitarianism, he also notes Burns's moments of hypocrisy and self-promotion. The chapter on the poet's Edinburgh days is particularly evocative: somehow Crawford catches the excitement and chaos, but also the vulnerability, pathos, courage and ambivalence as bedazzled Lowland farmer-poet meets bedazzled Edinburgh gentry.

There are no portraits or photos, though Crawford's poet's skill in evoking place partly compensates. Facts are occasionally reiterated and long chapters need patience in untangling fast-moving events. The narrative draws tellingly on Burns's own lively letters, and is always illuminating when dealing with individual poems. In an area notably difficult for literary biographers – how lived experiences shape creative work – Crawford is never simplistic or reductive. Newcomers to Burns and "auld acquaintance" alike will find much to relish.

Andrew O'Hagan's A Night out with Robert Burns is a mixed feast (perhaps a haggis?). A compendium of greatest hits, plus a poetic "birl" (spin) from Seamus Heaney, it seems to be modelled on the Burns night, with O'Hagan, a lively novelist and cultural commentator, playing MC. His introduction is colourful, but his anecdotes, one per poem, can seem intrusive. I enjoyed the account of bathing his new-born daughter, which precedes "Handsome Nell": the touching description reminds us that Burns (as Crawford shows) was, for the age, an unusually tender father.

On the other hand, the information, preceding "Afton Water", that the bark of a birch tree "is usually white and smooth ... and fresh green foliage appears to dress the trees in spring", is padding. This reader would have more happily taken the Burns Night rough with the smooth if the prose-favouring recto-verso layout had not resulted in a litter of blank pages. The bard needs no hard sell, but poetic genius deserves a format that's poetry-friendly.

The brief life of a legend

Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759, Robert Burns worked as a farm labourer from his early teens while pursuing a fitful education. He began writing poems and songs early and, in spite of the distractions of manual toil and a complex love-life, 'Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect' was published in Edinburgh in 1787. Soon a literary celebrity, he returned to Ayrshire with his wife Jean Armour to farm and work in the Excise. He wrote prolifically, and collected and adapted folk songs, until his death in 1796.

Carol Rumens's latest poetry collection is 'Blind Spots' (Seren)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee