TO A MOUSE
~ by Robert Burns
upon turning her nest up with a plow
Wee, sleeket, cowran, timorous beastie,
Oh what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awae sae hasty
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I would be laith to rin and chase thee
Wi’ murdering 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
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve.
Wha then? Poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
‘S a sma request.
I get a blessin wi’ the lave
And 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 and 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 passed
Out thro’ thy cell.
That wee-bit heap o’ leaves and stibble
Hast cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble
An’ cranreuch cauld!
But, mousie, thou art 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 promised joy!
Still, thou art blest, compared 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 and fear.
Some Scots dialect notes: cowran=cowering, laith=loath, pattle=spade, whyles=at times, maun=must, daimen-icker= odd corn-ear, lave=remainder, hald=home, thole=endure, big=build, foggage=grasses, snell=bitter, coulter=plow, thy-lane=alone, agley=awry.
After looking though many hundreds of pages in Robert Burns’ collected writings, I was amazed to find he wrote most of his poems in his early twenties while farming, and he died young, at thirty-six, of a heart ailment. He said, in one of his poems, that he wrote poetry “for fun” and not for glory or money. “For fun” was the way to go, as he poured them out and reworked them prolifically when in that mode.
This type of piece, an exalted address to a lowly entity– to a mouse, to a louse, to a mountain daisy, to a haggis, to a dead “ewie” (ewe)– was one of his comic specialties. He praised, tongue in cheek, the haggis as “great chieftain o’ the puddin race,” for example. While here in the mousie poem he viewed the mouse, facetiously, as his fellow partisan for social equality and universal rights. To Burns, the mouse is the equivalent of the struggling tenant farmer facing eviction. Burns himself, like his father, was a poor farmer.
In his early twenties he worked on a poem every day, as his evening leisure at the farm. When he did achieve some notoriety, in his late twenties and early thirties, he became distracted from writing poems and he wrote little. He had become concerned with his social position in the greater world and with his publishing ventures, compiling collections of great Scottish songs and folk ballads, for which he served as editor.