From one Bard to another

A new poem by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, a long-time admirer of Burns, captures his genius perfectly, writes ROBYN MARSACK

ASK the world's most famous living English-language poet to write a poem in praise of the world's most famous Scots-language poet, living or dead… and away you go, Burns is reeled into the 21st century, as alive as he ever was in his own marvellous poetry.

Seamus Heaney's poem prefaces a new collection of Burns's poems by Andrew O'Hagan, A Night Out with Robert Burns – the Greatest Poems. Here you'll find Burns as lover, drinker and social critic, unmasking hypocrisy wherever he finds it, with an especially sharp eye on religion. O'Hagan's commentary is appreciative and trenchant; sometimes he simply quotes from current journalism to show that Burns's topics are timeless.

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Heaney, an Irish poet, has already written with affection and understanding about the great modern bards of Scotland, Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean. He composes his tribute to Burns with panache, using the "standard habbie" that Burns popularised in poems such as To a Mouse, a verse form both lively and "trig", as Heaney says. It lets the line out on a long lead then pulls it back in to make a point, heightened by rhyme or near-rhyme. It's a form that jogs the memory, as people gratefully find when they stand to recite Burns's poems in schools and community halls, in private clubs, in dining-rooms domestic and grand all over the world on Burns Night.

The heart of Heaney's poem is not the personality of Burns, that "antithetical mind" so memorably characterised by Lord Byron as "Tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality – soaring and grovelling – dirt and deity – all mixed up in that compound of inspired clay!" Here he celebrates the language of Burns, the tongue the Ulster Scots took with them to Ireland, still present in Heaney's childhood.

Yet Heaney is too quick to say it is "going, gone", surviving as glossaries to Burns's poems where once it was in common usage. After all, "thrawn" and "tholed" are words often heard, pointing to aspects of the Scottish temperament whose antithesis is a fondness for "wild hooleys". Despite the best efforts of the Scottish education system, which has always paid its tribute to Burns the national poet while suppressing the use of his language in any formal context, that "first tongue" has survived and looks healthy. It may soon – thanks to energetic lobbying, not least by poets who continue to write in it – even be admitted by the same education system to equality with the other diverse tongues of this changing nation.

This poem suggests that the language of Burns, like the poet himself, is "rich and unruly". Burns has made work that cannot be contained in "well-wrought urns", flying in the face of convention in his verse as in his life. The poet purifies the language of the tribe, TS Eliot said, but Burns rejoiced in its impurities, and because of his poems, they "won't be lost".

Have a great Burns Night, and put his words – in all their muscular, memorable, Scots variety – at its centre!

* Robyn Marsack is director of the Scottish Poetry Library

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