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
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering