To a mouse – and a poet
Today is Burns’ Night, when Scotland celebrates the anniversary of our national poet, Robert Burns. As a child with an English mother, I struggled to follow the rich language of Burns’s lowland Scots. It was worth persevering with an English-Scots dictionary to hand, however, until I was familiar enough with both tongues to enjoy the poems as they stood.
Many qualities make the work of this 18th Century Ayrshire ploughman stand the test of time. His broad sense of humour, his keen eye for satire and his thrilling way with a story are all showcased in one of his most popular works, ‘Tam O’Shanter‘. (Anyone familiar with any of Scotland’s Calvinist history will also relish ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer‘.) There’s his romanticism – well hidden, as with most Scotsmen, behind a bluff exterior – which has melted many a heart since he penned ‘My love is like a red, red rose‘. But the quality that has won him most followers across the world is probably his ability to empathise with all creatures under heaven, of whatever standing, recognising that we are all muddling along together. You see it in the fine poem sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, ‘A man’s a man for a’ that‘; and you see it in the quiet little verses of one of my favourite works of his. This poem came to him after a day’s ploughing, when he accidentally broke open a mouse’s nest in the stubble. Even in a mood of melancholy and self-pity, he could find empathy for this tiny fellow-creature. Here’s to his immortal memory.
(For those who find the Scots vocabulary impenetrable, there is a decent translation into standard English here.)
To A Mouse
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a 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,
What makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whiles, 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’ 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.
That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony 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 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 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 dreaer!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
Robert Burns, 1785
As a postscript, I was interested to find that a contemporary poem by Gillian Clarke on an almost identical theme has become a set text for GCSE English Literature exams. If you would like to compare the two, you can find her poem, ‘The Field Mouse’, here.
You might also enjoy A loch, a lonely glen and a visit from Rabbie Burns and Immortal memories: just an ordinary Burns’ Night.