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Robert Burns Lives!
Book Review of "The Best Laid Schemes: Selected Poetry & Prose of Robert Burns"

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Book Review of
The Best Laid Schemes:
Selected Poetry & Prose of Robert Burns
Edited by
Robert Crawford & Christopher MacLachlan

The Best Laid Schemes

Is this a good book? Yes, but it is even more…it’s a great book!  It is also an interesting book, well-written, refreshing, and a first-class gathering of the works of Robert Burns most appreciated by authors Robert Crawford and Christopher MacLachlan. Crawford has become one of the world’s most acclaimed Burns scholars and MacLachlan is one of the best textual experts on Scotland’s Bard! The two men have combined their scholarship to produce, according to Princeton Press, a “definitive, wide-ranging collection” of the poems and prose of Burns. It is a book you and I will return to time after time as we continue to study, write or speak about him. As a teaser, the editors mention that “there are more statues of Robert Burns in the United States than there are of any American Poet.” What wonderful sound bite!

Many books have come on the market this year in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Burns’ birth, and I highly recommend this one be placed in the top tier of the lot. It’s easy to project that it will be welcomed by scholar and layman alike. Let’s look briefly now at the various sections in the volume.

The section on POEMS is rare since line-by-line marginal glossing is used to enhance the meaning of the poetry and make for easier reading. Crawford’s selection of poetry typifies his genius, and I am unaware of a better selection other than the whole of Burns’s poems. If you need a guide to the best of Burns’s verse, this is it. As Graham Greene was wont to say, “This is the heart of the matter”.

Robert Crawford & Christopher MacLachlan

The REDISCOVERED POEMS were tracked down by Crawford “through extensive digital searching of the National Burns Collection” (along with a few cups of coffee) which other researchers either overlooked or chose to dismiss or ignore. As the editors say, “all (of these) manuscripts are in Burns’s hand”. What a discovery!

The PROSE of Burns, always a favorite of mine, covers important sections of Burns’s First Commonplace Book during the years 1783-1785. Predictably, the autobiographical letter from Burns to Dr. John Moore is among the prose chosen. Other selections are from his literary lover and maybe paramour Agnes McLehose, dear friend Robert Ainslie, his often neglected pen pal Frances Dunlop, and his touching and sad letter to father-in-law James Armour, whom he at one time despised, written from his death bed and describing himself as “Your most affectionate son – RBurns.”

Crawford and MacLachlan share their indebtedness to James Kinsley’s three-volume masterpiece as most of us should but do not always do! Who contributed what to the book? It is my understanding that the textual notes were by MacLachlan and his “Notes” on pages 225-264 are worth the price of the book. The introduction by Crawford on pages xiii – xxxv (13 – 35) are the best 22 pages you will find anywhere to sum up the life of Burns. Crawford, in a recent email writes, “We each kept an eye on what the other was doing and made some adjustments.” MacLachlan declares that “…we hope this edition provides texts that are clear, well glossed, reliable, and allow readers to get a good sense of the vivacity of Burns’s works”. All I can add is “GOAL ACHIEVED!” These two editors do “give us a Burns to believe in”, a phrase I will borrow for the As William Faulkner taught us, the past is never dead and neither is Robert Burns.

You may purchase The Best Laid Schemes: Selected Poetry & Prose of Robert Burns from Princeton University Press, ISBN13: 978 0 691 14295 1 (Paper) or ISBN13: 978 0 691 14294 4 (Cloth). You can also find it online at Barnes & Noble,, and you may order it from your local book seller.  (FRS: 9.23.09)

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