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Canongate Burns: The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Canongate Classics) Paperback – January 1, 2003
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A very fine edition, and the long introduction, which sets out to clear the tangled banks, is alone worth the cover price. (Andrew O'Hagan The Scotsman)
Scholarly and comprehensive. (Sunday Telegraph)
A magnificent and definitive work of scholarship. A thousand pages long, it provides not only a glossary and a context for the poems, but also a textual and historical note for each poem and song. (Colm Toibin The Independent)
The complete works of Robert Burns
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Perhaps just as problematic, their repeated aligning of Burns with Romantic poets like Wordsworth implies that Burns was a self-originating genius. While Noble and Hogg offer a magisterial indictment of Burns's posthumous de-politicization which anyone interested in the period should read, they spend far less time commenting on his much more obscure 18th-century sources. While they discuss the contemporary historical situation of Scotland well, they offer no information at all about dialect verse, a tradition which after all Burns did not invent in that country. Beneath it all seems to be an almost impossible desire to define Burns as a "national" poet while avoiding anything that might wall him into an "ethnic" tradition.
Despite these Romantic overtones, Noble and Hogg want to position Burns as part of the radical Enlightenment. And the editors' resuscitation of this legacy restores a sense of excitement not only to Burns, but also to the entire period. It's hard not to relish the combative tone with which they hold up Byron's Jacobinism for comparison, even though it seems facile and perhaps wrong: "Was the mine-owning self-dramatizing aristocrat ever under the cosh in the way Burns was? Is individual nihilism of the Byron, Baudelaire variety the necessary prelude to utopian change?" (xci) Their editorial strategies are also innovative; I appreciate the bold decision to append their interpretations after each poem, rather than in the traditional hard-to-reach, tiny-font footnote, or in the old headnote that meekly pretends to "frame" the ensuing poem. These discussions helped to clarify some of the difficult poems, as well as offering something to contend with. All in all, this is among my favorite editions of a major poet, even though I might question some of its methods.
The Canongate Burns has many typographical errors and should not be used as the only source one has of Burns's texts. It has, however, admirable notes outlining Burns's political writings of his last years. Several probable new works by Burns have been uncovered by the authors (and they are clearly labeled as works that appeared anonymously or under pseudonyms in newspapers).
In bringing Burns out of the shadows of "Holy Willie" self-righteousness and bardolatry, this edition is much to be commended. James Kinsley (The Oxford Standard authors) is to be preferred as your popular text of the poems, but if you want to know more and are truly interested in Burns and the political contexts in which he wrote, the Canongate Burns is an inimitable gloss on Burns as a person and on the ideas behind the poetry.