Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "To a Mouse," by Robert Burns

First of all, sorry for the lack of a Monday update; I tried to post something while I was visiting Rutgers-Newark, but apparently you can only connect to the Internet there with a student ID and a password. (No guest wifi? Balderdash!)

Today's poem is by Robert Burns (1759-1796), the national poet of Scotland. During his 37 years, he was a prolific poet and songwriter, and he also led an interesting life outside of that. I first learned of Burns in December 2008 when I visited Edinburgh, Scotland, the UNESCO World City of Literature. Burns, especially in America, gets overlooked, but his poetry is a brand of heartfelt romanticism that presages that of Wordsworth and Coleridge. In many ways, Burns was a more sincere romanticist than Wordsworth because, instead of just praising and lauding the working classes, Burns actually wrote in their dialect and worked that commonplace language into elegant poetic forms.

I've also selected this particular poem because it's the origin of a common cliché, which you'll notice as soon as you get to that stanza. Try imagining this read in a Scottish brogue; it helps immensely.

To a Mouse
On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough. November 1785.

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae haesty,
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,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, 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 monie 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 drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!


  1. When you mentioned reading this with a Scottish brogue, I thought: "There's only one poem I've ever read like that." Lo and behold, it's the same poem.

    I first read this in the 10th grade when my English asked one of my classmates to volunteer to read it with a Scottish twang as it were because the poem is written in the poet's native dialect. We read it because we were just about to star reading "Of Mice and Men" and I haven't forgotten it since.

    Also, it's quite appropriate you should chose a poem by a Scotsman for today's post since March 31st is also the birthday of a famous Scottish actor. Can you guess which one?

    Hint: He has the high ground. ^_^


  2. @Anonymous

    Edit: That's supposed to be "English teacher." Oops.

    ~me again

  3. @Anonymous
    Don't try it Anakin! I have the high ground! Ah, Ewan McGregor...the only thing that would've been more appropriate, then, would've been a review of Trainspotting!

    I'm glad that you enjoyed the poem, and I'm also glad to hear that Robert Burns got taught in a school! He's a pretty neat poet, in a lot of ways, and it's hard for me to believe that he gets constantly overlooked for Wordsworth and Coleridge.

    Viva la Scotland!