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
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 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.
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:
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Featured image credit- 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 credit- Robert Burns postage stamp. by Susannah Fullerton