Andrew O’Hagan (Ed) - A Night Out with Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems (4 stars)

Andrew O’Hagan



Robert Burns has been ‘sainted, painted, tormented and toasted’, as the book blurb playfully informs us. He is also a source of boredom for schoolchildren, linguistic perplexity for non-Scots and undiluted pleasure for Ayrshire entrepreneurs. In short, Burns’ ‘incredible afterlife’, as novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan pithily writes, is a source of wonder, so much so that his poetry itself sometimes stands in danger of being overlooked.

Purists will undoubtedly prefer a ‘straight’ Burns collection, ideally aged and bound in leather, but a diverse number of readers will warm to O’Hagan’s approach, choosing poems that matter to him, some famous, others obscure, and offering a motley collection of fragments of his own. Ranging from a recipe for Whisky Collins to complement ‘Scotch Drink’ to a sentimental account of his daughter’s birth for ‘Handsome Nell’ these are mostly entertaining, occasionally irritating; a mention of the Blair-Bush love-in is already outdated. The timelessness of Burns’ poetry stands in contrast to O’Hagan’s personal and contemporary camaraderie.

However, by suggesting a story of how Burns might be read today, O’Hagan invites a hesitant reader into a fresh perusal of the poems. His account of having to sing ‘My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet’ in a gymnasium filled with ‘tittering Ayrshire schoolchildren’ is amusing, even touching. Writing with great affection, O’Hagan calls Burns ‘the prince of poetry, not only for me or for Scotland, but for the world.’ He can also be restrained, informed and a delight to read.

Post a comment