‘To a Mouse (On turning her up in her nest wi the Plough, November, 1785)’.

Ishbel McFarlane writes, on the website of the Scottish Poetry Library, about her favourite poem:

“…in its own way, ‘To a Mouse’ is a neglected poem. Like ‘Daffodils or ‘Sonnet 18’, we barely read it anymore, the title is shorthand for what we think it says. Even now as you read my thoughts on the poem you probably skipped reading the handily-provided text. I know I would have. I ask you now to read it anew, try reading it aloud, and try to ignore the fact that, like Hamlet, it is ‘full of quotations’.

My comparison of Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) with Shakespeare is not accidental. In Scotland we have the sneaky advantage of claiming both writers as our (very much capitalised) National Bard, depending on whether we choose in that moment to think of ourselves as Scottish or British. ‘To a Mouse’, however, highlights their stark differences as poets. We never see such specificity in the works of Shakespeare as we find even in the title of the Scots poem: ‘To a Mouse (On turning her up in her nest wi the Plough, November, 1785)’.

And yet, the ‘universality’ claimed for the work of both Burns and Shakespeare is perfectly evident. In 2008, as we watch entire species fall off the map of history we find poignancy in the idea of Nature’s broken ‘social union’. Our roaring, petrol-guzzling way of life had its origins in the agricultural and industrial revolutions of Burns’ era, something we often find surprising given that he ploughed and sowed his fields by hand, able to see the life-cycles of something as small as a mouse, a feat inconceivable in modern industrial farming, never mind our predominately urban world.

The narrator (a voice which we irresistibly want to call Robert) sees into the mouse’s situation. We must be careful, though, of saying that he writes from the perspective of the mouse. As the description of the terrible fate of the mouse escalates into the sound-attack of ‘sleety dribble,/ An’ cranreuch cauld’ we sense feelings beyond simply worries about the small creature. In the last verse, the poem itself tells us that the mouse cannot experience anything more than the current moment. The anxieties are not the mouse’s, they are the speaker’s. This poem is wildly self-obsessed and much darker than its popularity in the classroom would suggest. Its proposed subject-matter might be cutesie, but its message ends up being almost as bitter and hopeless as any Burns ever expresses.”

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’ murdering 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’ requet;

I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,

An’ never miss’t!/

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!

Its silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!

An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,

O’ foggage green!

An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuing,

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 and stibble,

Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!

Now thou’s turned 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 are blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But Och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,

I guess an’ fear!

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