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‘People’s Poet’ Robert Burns Turns 250

Robert Burns illuminated on the city chambers of Glasgow; photo by lastyearsgirl via Flickr

The image of poetry fans gathered in a pub enjoying bagpipes, haggis, drinks and verse is a very Scottish one, but Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns has fans worldwide who know there’s no better way to honor the man and his writing. Burns admirers, whether from Russia, Jamaica, his birthplace of Alloway or other corners of the globe, celebrated his 250th birthday on January 25 at traditional “Burns Night” suppers and parties that included huge amounts of food, drink and song as accompaniment to his poetry.

Many Burns scholars and admirers have noted that he was “a man for the ladies and the drink.” He’s often called the “people’s poet,” as much for the universal themes of his work–love, friendship and nature–as for his jovial personality. He was just 37 when he died, but he had found fame years earlier with his poems “To a Louse” and “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” His best-known love poem, “My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose,” was one of his latest works. Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who wrote and produced this month’s three-part BBC series, “The World According to Robert Burns,” thinks it’s Burns’ extraordinary compassion that still attracts so many people to him.

No poem exhibits Burns’ innate empathy better than “To a Mouse,” in which he describes his feelings upon turning up a mouse’s nest in a field with his plough:

“I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,

Which makes thee startle,

At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,

An’ fellow-mortal!”

“He’s a poet of pure empathy,” O’Hagan said. To O’Hagan, Burns’ poems also have a renewed and enduring relevance today. “Here’s a poet who’s absolutely up to the minute as far as our own global financial crisis goes,” he said. “Robert Burns is the man to go to for some empathy about how to survive the horror of unexpected crash, the horror of being thrown out of your former circumstances.”

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