“He did not fail the muse or us or himself as one of poetry’s chosen instruments”

This Burns Night there’s a talk at Queens University on Burns and the Sense of Place, by Dr Fiona Stafford – the first of in a series of Spring Events from the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. Michael Longley is scheduled for February 14. And the BBC has Seamus Heaney’s new tribute to Rabbie Burns – and a recording of the Nobel winning poet reading that tribute – A Birl for Burns [RealPlayer file]. Heaney has also been working on a modern English account of the work of the 15th-century Scottish makar Robert Henryson – as noted previously here.

A Birl for Burns

From the start, Burns’ birl and rhythm,
That tongue the Ulster Scots brought wi’ them
And stick to still in County Antrim
Was in my ear.
From east of Bann it westered in
On the Derry air.

My neighbours toved and bummed and blowed,
They happed themselves until it thowed,
By slaps and stiles they thrawed and tholed
And snedded thrissles,
And when the rigs were braked and hoed
They’d wet their whistles.

Old men and women getting crabbèd
Would hark like dogs who’d seen a rabbit,
Then straighten, stare and have a stab a
Standard habbie:
Custom never staled their habit
O’ quotin’ Rabbie.

Leg-lifting, heartsome, lightsome Burns!
He overflowed the well-wrought urns
Like buttermilk from slurping churns,
Rich and unruly,
Or dancers flying, doing turns
At some wild hooley.

For Rabbie’s free and Rabbie’s big,
His stanza may be tight and trig
But once he sets the sail and rig
Away he goes
Like Tam-O-Shanter o’er the brig
Where no one follows.

And though his first tongue’s going, gone,
And word lists now get added on
And even words like stroan and thrawn
Have to be glossed,
In Burn’s rhymes they travel on
And won’t be lost.

A Birl for Burns is taken from A Night Out With Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems.