On turning her up in her nest,
with the plough, November, 1785
We again see how, in the words of Thomas
Carlyl, the poet "rises to the high, stoops to the low, and is brother and playmate
to all nature." This is, by readers gentle and readers simple, acknowledged to be one
of the most perfect little gems that ever human genius produced. One of its couplets has
passed into a proverb:- "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, gang aft agley."
Surely one of the finest poems written by Burns,
containing some of the most famous and memorable lines ever written by a
poet, yet, to this day not really understood by the mass of English-speaking
poetry lovers, for no other reason than that the dialect causes it to be
read as though in a foreign language. All readers of Burns know of the "Wee
sleekit cow'rin tim'rous beastie" but not many understand the sadness and
despair contained within the lines of this poem. What was the Bard saying
when he was inspired by turning up a fieldmouse in her nest one day while
out ploughing? - George Wilkie
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!
I'm truly sorry Man's
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave 'S a sma' request:
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an' wast,
An' weary Winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.
That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!
But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
The poet is doing his utmost to
assure this terrified little creature that he has no intention of causing it
any harm. bickerin’ brattle =scurry, run; laith = loath; pattle = a small
spade for cleaning a plough
He then goes on to apologise to
the mouse for the behaviour of mankind using beautiful prose which requires
neither translation nor interpretation. Listen to what he is saying, and you
will be well on your way to understand what made Burns such a greatly loved
man. Note how he equates himself with the mouse in life’s great plan.
Here he tells the mouse that he
realizes its need to steal the odd ear of corn, and he does not really mind.
He’ll get by with remainder and never miss it. daimen = occasional; icker =
an ear of corn; thrave = twenty four sheaves; lave = remainder
Dismay at the enormity of the
problems he has brought on the mouse causes him to reflect on what he has
done - destroyed her home at a time when it is impossible to rebuild. There
is no grass to build a new home and the December winds are cold and sharp.
Her preparations for winter are gone! Big = build; foggage = moss; baith =
Where the mouse had thought that
she was prepared for winter in her comfortable little nest in the ground,
now she is faced with trying to survive in a most unfriendly climate, with
little or no hope in sight. cosie = comfortable; coulter; = iron cutter in
front of a ploughshare
It seems probable that here the
poet is really comparing his own hard times with that of the mouse – a life
of harsh struggle, with little or no reward at the end. monie = many; thole
= to endure; dribble = drizzle; cranreuch = hoar-frost; cauld = cold
How many times have people
glibly trotted out, “The best laid schemes” without realising that they were
quoting from Burns? The sadness, the despair, the insight contained
within this verse are truly remarkable and deeply moving. no ‘thy lane = not
alone; gan aft agley = often go awry
This final verse reveals the
absolute despondency that Burns was feeling at this stage in his life. Not
at all what one might expect from a young man of twenty-six, supposedly so
popular with the lassies, and with his whole life ahead of him, but
nevertheless expressing sentiments with which many of us today can easily
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