As actor James Cosmo, who has recorded a new recital of the winner, To a Mouse, said it was “so important that our children still read Burns – and that language that is so rich and vibrant can’t be lost. It's way too important.” It was named the country's favourite Scots poem by VisitScotland after a survey of about 1,000 people.
Given To A Mouse was written in 1785, it is extraordinary that Burns’ words still resonate so strongly. One possible reason is that its theme – concern about humanity’s impact on the natural world – feels modern.
Describing his dismay after ploughing through the nest of the titular mouse, Burns wrote: “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!”
Some afflicted by the Scottish “cultural cringe” might think his words speak only to a parochial audience. But Burns transcends borders.
The late American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou spoke of how, as a poor black girl, rendered mute after she was raped, “the only key I had which would open the door to the world for me was a book”. “I read everything. I fell in love with poetry. And amazingly in a small village in Arkansas, I met Robert Burns,” she said.
Burns’ attitudes to women are a stain on his character that cannot be ignored, but neither can the beauty and insights to be found in his poetry.