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To A Mouse
By Robert Burns


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."

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With thanks to Marilyn Wright and
the Flag in the Wind

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 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!

 

 

 

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!

On turning her up in her nest, with the plough, November, 1785

 

Thanks to George Wilkie for letting us have this explanation of this poem from his book, "Understanding Robert Burns".

 

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 = both

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 relate.


Robert Burns Index