I have to start by saying I feel like I have made it over one hump in this project. A quick look back at the list of Harvard Classics shows me that while there are still volumes of poetry to come, this is the last in the series that compiles every poem ever written by a single poet. I have two theses on this volume to make right up front: 1) I enjoyed the work of Robert Burns immensely however 2) I strongly feel that poems are not meant to be read in this manner (looking over at my bookshelf, I'm suddenly acutely aware that I will probably never take down Allen Ginsberg's White Shroud or Cosmopolitan Greetings again except to move. Why do I even own these aside from the latter being autographed? Who reads White Shroud and why?), although I'm partly to blame for that. In the interest of moving this project along, I sat down in long stretches and read the book like a novel. I think it is generally wiser and more helpful to read a poem or two each day rather than 45 pages of one page poems in a sitting. It put me in mind of Truman Capote's assessment of Venice which he said was "like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”"
The poems of Burns are, or at least were (the much poorer we), deeply ingrained in Western Civilization. Like Shakespeare and Milton, a lot of the phrases we say on a daily basis came from his pen. I share Dr. Eliot's feeling that Burns was one of the greatest poets in the English language. His mastery of composition makes it seem easy and conversational. I was always amazed and delighted to come across a great, classic poem in this volume of course (what with all of the loves being like red red roses, auld acquaintances getting overlooked, and all of those murine and homonid plans going agley) but I found that I was equally interested in the vast eccentricities included therein.
A good share of Burns' work are songs, generally rewriting lyrics to existing songs, none of which I had ever heard of before (so the titles read along the lines of "Nancy's the Cutie o' the Glen- to the tune of 'There's a Wee Clootie in a But an' Ben.'" P.S. Not an actual Burns title. It's a composite. Like New York magazine does.) So it's kind of like reading the lyrics to a new Weird Al album when you're past the age of knowing all popular music. Except to the lyrical content of Burns I would employ the adjective "clever" rather than "novelty."
He also wrote a lot of mean-spirited epitaphs for people he didn't like. It would take an extraordinarily charming human to prevent this from being the very pinnacle of déclassé. Burns is almost that charming.
The most inscrutable pieces, which left me clamoring for an editor, are the pieces which comment on long forgotten "current events." I know enough from my travels in Great Britain and my vast library of Sir Harry Lauder recordings to make sense of Burns' often thick dialectical writing. I know enough of history to hirple along with him when he brings up Wallace or Charles James Fox. But even living in the golden age of the internet was no help when he starts naming a provincial minister who held some unpopular point of doctrine.
My knowledge of Burns' biography lacks coordination, I'm afraid, and the introductory note gives the briefest of flyovers. I do know that he was censured by the Kirk-session for an unwedlocked intimacy with a young lady. I sensed a somewhat jaded view of religion in Burns although I did not sense a falling away from faith, which served to draw me closer to Burns.
I think I like Burns best when he writes benedictions. He was very graceful in these. This passage from a lament for James, the Earl of Glencairn very much put me in mind of my friend Rob who passed away almost a year ago now:
"The bridegroom may forget the bride
Was made his wedding wife yestereen;
The monarch may forget the crown
That on his head an hour has been;
The mother may forget the child
That smiles sae sweetly on her knee;
But I'll remember thee, Glencairn,
And a' that thou hast done for me!"
As we become more distant from one another even as we grow more global as a culture, the poems of Robert Burns are one of those literary treasure troves caches growing dusty from misuse. This is a tragedy we all share. I cannot recommend highly enough that you get a volume of Burns and read from it as often as you can.
Just limit yourself to a half dozen poems or less a day.