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To a mouse – and a poet

January 25, 2012

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,
An’ fellow-mortal!

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.


13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2012 5:12 pm

    Burns was a favorite poet of my parents. I remember my dad (who was raised on a farm and used a plow) reading this exact poem when I was young. Thanks for posting it here today.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 25, 2012 6:05 pm

      Your dad must have had a personal understanding of this poem that few of us can match. I’m glad to bring it to you again.

  2. January 25, 2012 6:59 pm

    Many thanks for this lovely post, DB. I can just about make sense of the Scots without a translation, but it takes me a fair bit of time. Interestingly there are definite overtones in some words of the broad Lancashire and Yorkshire dialects my grandparents could speak.

    I will enjoy a haggis in Burns’ honour the next time we head north. 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 27, 2012 5:29 pm

      How interesting that you see connections with the dialects of Northern England. Language is endlessly fascinating to me, even if I am a virtual monoglot!

  3. aubrey permalink
    January 25, 2012 10:38 pm

    “My love is like a red, red rose”!

    I remember that from an episode of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, when Lady Marjorie’s (soon to be) young man sat at his piano and began singing it to her, in a deep, romantic baritone.

    I love this little ode; one can feel a real sympathy for the ‘tim’rous beastie’. I was able to understand the bulk of it, but would be hopeless, I’m afraid, at understanding it should it be recited. It’s so easy to become lost in the music of the language.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 27, 2012 5:31 pm

      I do like your expression, ‘the music of the language’. Burns’s language is indeed like music when you hear it recited.

      I’m a little too young for ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ so sadly I missed out on that version! It’s a beautiful song, though, which I have often sung.

  4. hmunro permalink
    January 26, 2012 12:14 am

    One of my favorite writers pays tribute to one of my favorite poets. Beautifully said, db!

    I’ve always especially loved the last stanza of “To A Mouse”:

    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!

    Isn’t that the human condition, in a nutshell? [Raises toast to Rabbie Burns …]

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 27, 2012 5:34 pm

      Alas, Heather, I fear you have a melancholy view of the human condition! Interesting that you should single out the last verse. It’s the penultimate stanza which is most often quoted, especially ‘the best laid schemes’ etc. For one, it gave John Steinbeck a good title: ‘Of Mice and Men’. 🙂

  5. January 26, 2012 2:51 pm

    Oh I love this wee poem! I recited it for a school competition when I was about 10 and it’s never left me. I love the philosophy – and how much it has penetrated modern culture. I wonder how many people have said, “Best laid plans, eh?” and actually known where it came from?!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 27, 2012 5:36 pm

      You’re so right, I bet there are many who don’t know the origin of the phrase. And yes, his empathy with a wee mouse would have been unusual, I think, in the relatively heartless 18th century, whereas nowadays it is normal thinking.

      It’s great to learn a piece off by heart, isn’t it. I learned the Address to a Haggis to recite at a Burns’ Supper at university, and still reel it off with relish every Burns’ Night!

  6. XpatScot permalink
    February 9, 2012 1:35 am

    O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion:

    No truer words were ever spoken
    In my opinion

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 9, 2012 3:49 pm

      Well hello, Xpat, or should I say welcome hame! Thanks for dropping by.

      I do like your modification of ‘To a Louse’ – brilliant! And I quite agree, these are some of the Bard’s most memorable and timeless lines. They often come to my mind.


  1. Worthy o’ a grace | Dancing Beastie

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