1 January 2017 Susannah

Robert Burns & To a Mouse

Mt Oliphant Farm, nr. Ayr, South Ayrshire, Scotland

There are few poems I love as much as Robert Burns’s To a Mouse. I know many readers are put off his poetry because of the Scots dialect words, so I’ve provided a glossary to help explain them for you:

To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough by Robert Burns

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, (sleek)
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle! (hurrying scamper)
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, (loath to run)
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, whiles, but thou may thieve; (sometimes)
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave (the odd ear in 24 sheaves)
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave, (what’s left)
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’ waste,
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.

Thy wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble, (stubble)
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald, (without house or holding)
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble, (endure)
An’ cranreuch cauld! (hoar-frost cold)

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane, (alone)
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley, (often go askew)
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!


Robert Burns postage stamp

The poem was written in 1785 and was included in the Kilmarnock volume of his first published poems. Burns worked as a farmer on the family farm, which was stony and unproductive. (See featured image.) On destroying with his plough the winter home of a mouse, he stops to think about the little creature’s destiny, cast out into a cold harsh world, facing winter without a food supply. He then moves on to think about himself and the fate of humanity. Man can also be poor, homeless, and defenceless, and Burns links man and mouse in the famous lines about “the best-laid schemes …”.

Burns is sympathetic to the mouse and addresses it fondly and colloquially (“thy wee bit housie”). He understands that it steals from man’s harvest in order to survive. There’s a real sense of intimate realisation of the mouse’s condition. Burns does not romanticise farming – he knows about the cold, the “sleety dribble”, the life and death struggle for a little animal regarded by men as a pest. Nor does he romanticise his own position, seeing his human predicament as even worse than the mouse’s because he has an awareness of both past and future, whereas “the present only touches” the mouse.

It’s a poem about an essential human problem – how to reconcile planning with fortune. Man is so often unable to control his own fate. Burns also stresses man’s delusion that he can be separate from nature – the human ego makes man feel somehow superior and above the struggles of the natural world, yet Burns insists that man and mouse, “earth-born companions and fellow mortals”, share unity in the world. Man has dominion only in his mind.

The poem has been inspirational to many. John Steinbeck found a book title in it, so did Sidney Sheldon for his book The Best Laid Plans, poet Liz Lochhead has written From a Mouse in response.

My favourite reader of Burns’s poetry is John Cairney. I can’t find a YouTube reading by him, but this is a good reading:

Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- Mt Oliphant Farm, nr. Ayr, South Ayrshire, Scotland. Future Museum, South West Scotland. http://www.futuremuseum.co.uk/collections/people/key-people/burns/robert-burns/mount-oliphant-(1).aspx
Body image- Robert Burns postage stamp. by Susannah Fullerton

Comments (4)

  1. Margarita Frizza

    Dear Susannah,

    If I have to think about the highlights of the 2016-it is definitely your lectures at the Art Gallery of NSW.
    To my greatest regret, I couldn’t attend them in full entirety. However, the impact and effect of them were immense. English is not my first language. Your lectures brought the whole new world of discovery, beauty and enlightenment. You have mesmerizing qualities of a lecturer, bringing your subject to life with such vivid images and insights. I was so inspired by your love of literature and reading.
    I always loved reading, though I am a bit slow. I grew up on Russian classics, as I am Russian. BTW, talking about weddings-the famous scene of Levine marrying Kitty from “ Anna Karenina” comes to mind straight away.

    I thoroughly enjoy your newsletter. I was so happy to receive one last night-it was almost like a present. I thought it might give you a pleasure to know that my first day of this year started with Robert Burns’s poem on your suggestion. While waiting to pick up my son from his Firework Night out about 4 a m in the morning and trying not to fall asleep-I opened your Newsletter and tried to immerse myself into the poem. Hard task!!! I persisted with it over the first day of the Year Lunch with my husband and son, trying to penetrate a Scottish barrier. It is not easy task-but utterly rewarding. That is where the name of Steinbeck’s novel comes from! And the mouse…hm, I will put my screaming and cursing away next time I will see one. Thank you for your choice.
    It is translated to Russian as well.
    And here is a Scottish student explaining in Russian to his audience (presumably students) about differences between Scotland and England, Scottish and English and saying that R. Burns to Scotts is the same as Pushkin to Russians. He added that he and his friends are celebrating Burns’s birthday on the 25 of January, reading his poems, and drinking whisky. Then he proceeds with reading the poem itself.

    Happy New Year to you and your family!
    Congratulations to you on the wedding of your daughter.

    My December days –with all the fuss of Celebrations-are so pleasantly interrupted by beautiful reading of “Kidnaped” (just finished it) and “Jane Eyre”. 1 of January 2017-Jane meets Mr Rochester for the first time….

    So looking forward to your lectures in 2017!

    Kind regards and best wishes,

    Margarita Frizza

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Margarita, I feel as if I have also been given a present from your lovely email. It is so touching to know how much you have loved my lectures, that you have followed some of my reading recommendations and gained such pleasure from them. I am filled with admiration at you reading these classics when English is not your first language, and I also envy you being able to read Tolstoy and Chekhov in the original Russian. Yes, I think Pushkin would be seen as the Russian equivalent of Burns – both are national bards! Thanks for including the fascinating web links.
      I hope before too long to have dates for future talks at the Art Gallery and do hope to see you there. Thanks for getting my year off to such a great start with your kind words and Happy New Year.

  2. Katherine

    My father who was a Scotsman from Edinburgh used to say some of this poem about the wee mousie, to me when I was a child . Thank you for reminding me of it.
    He had another poem but I have never been able to find it. I only know a few lines. The gist of the poem is a small boy travelling on a train to see his granny. He asks questions like “why does the smoke gang down the funnel ” . The poem ends with a line like,” come awa in my wee laddie..

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’m afraid the Granny poem doesn’t ring any bells with me, but am so glad that my choice of Burns’s wonderful Mousie poem brought back good memories. It has to be read aloud by a Scot – that gorgeous accent makes it so perfect! You were lucky to have him recite it to you. I hope 2017 is full of more good poems.

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