Barack Obama's already picked a poet for his Inauguration—but considering the grim times, a reading of Robert Burns would be just as apt. The national bard of the Scots (they're celebrating his 250th birthday on Jan. 21), Burns is known as the "poet of the poor" for his chronicles of life among the country's farmers and wayfarers. Born into poverty himself, and raised to do backbreaking agricultural work, Burns lived fast and loose before dying a near pauper at the age of 38. At times, the poet lamented his meager finances ("The prosperous man is asleep, nor hears how the whirlwinds sweep; but misery and I must watch the surly tempest blow: And it's O, fickle Fortune, O!"). But Burns was also a lifelong skeptic of wealth and rank. In "My Father Was a Farmer," he wrote of being taught as a young boy to "act a manly part, though I had ne'er a farthing ... for without an honest manly heart, no man was worth regarding." Later, he told the rich and powerful: "A cheerful honest-hearted clown I will prefer before you."
Burns also saw how the love of wealth led to political evils like slavery and treason (he lambasted the rogues who sold out heroes like Robert Bruce for "traitor's wages" in English gold). Woe to the man who preferred money over the bonds of brotherhood, because for Burns, friendship was the one true boon in this uncertain world. It's the subject of his most famous poem, "Auld Lang Syne," and his most beautiful, "A Man's a Man for A'That": "That Man to Man, the world o'er, Shall brothers be for a'that." A fitting message for the transition into 2009.