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A Highlander and his Books
The English Poetry of Robert Burns

Eileen Bremner’s
English Poetry of Robert Burns
(1759 – 1796)

Reviewed by Frank R. Shaw, Atlanta, GA, USA, email:

          Few topics on Robert Burns attract my attention as much as those who try to anglicize his writings. It always reminds me of the famous correspondence between Burns and Dr. John Moore. It was Moore who urged Burns to concentrate on English since so few could understand the Scottish dialect. Thank goodness Burns turned a deaf ear to Moore and the others who criticized him for not writing in English.

          In 1892, Alexander Corbet wrote a little book entitled Burns in English which was composed of select poems of Burns translated from the Scottish dialect into… you guessed it…English. I’ve never seen Corbet’s book quoted in any of the 900+ books I have on Burns that I have either read or referenced. Others have translated Burns into English with the same result. As my Mama used to say, “Some folks just won’t leave well enough alone!”

          Now, a very sweet, knowledgeable, and interesting Scottish lady, Eileen Doris Bremner from Inverurie in Scotland’s Aberdeenshire comes along and turns the table on all of these writers who want to translate Burns into English. She applied a simple solution to what many had obviously overlooked and made a lot more difficult than necessary. Eileen did her research, determined that Burns himself had “written over a hundred poems in pure English”, and she selected 42 of them for her wee book, being adamant about not leaving out any of the verses. Some of us may tend to get a little restless sometimes in church when all verses are sung in the hymns, particularly if they have five or six. Take my word for it, those who love Burns or want to learn more about Burns will not get restless reading all the verses of these poems, mainly because they will understand them!

          My favorite section of the book is Poems about Women/Love”. Under this category you will find a couple of my favorites, “Clarinda! Mistress of My Soul” and “Flow Gently Sweet Afton”. Both are simply great love poems. The section on Death is interesting from the standpoint that there are more of them than any other topic except the poems about women and love. Several of these stand out, one in particular since I lost my Dad at about the same age as Burns was when he lost his father. The son writes the epithet for his father’s headstone which is located in Alloway’s auld kirkyard. I have stood on that sacred spot, appreciative of what the poet said about the father he clashed with as he searched for his own identity.

          Since the two topics of women/love and death account for about a third of the poems in Eileen’s book, I wonder, (humorously of course), if there is a correlation between the two. If you figure it out, email me and I’ll share it with our readers.

          I recently received my annual invitation to attend the 2007 Burns International Conference in Glasgow at The Mitchell. (They do not say “Library” - just “The Mitchell”. I like that!) I’ve always wanted to attend one of these conferences and was even invited to speak a couple of years back by Dr. Kenneth Simpson, my friend and very much the kind of Burns scholar you’d love, but a matter of an operation on my wife’s torn rotator cuff seemed a little more important at the time, so I had to cancel a few weeks before the conference. I mention this only to say that one of the speakers for the 2007 conference is Eileen Bremner, right up there with all the Burns scholars, speaking on “The English Poetry of Robert Burns”. I’ll wager that when all is said and done, the lights turned out, and the attendees make their way back home from “The Mitchell”, the one speaker they will not forget will be Eileen Bremner and her remarks about Burns’ poetry in English. At least they will understand what she says!

          Today I ordered a dozen of these wee books to pass around to the usual suspects. They only cost 3.50 pounds plus a little postage. I promise you will never buy a book consisting of only 42 poems that you will enjoy as much.

(FRS: 12-22-06)

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