This poem was included in the Kilmarnock Volume. Burns first book of poems.
The verse stanza used is the Standard Habbie from the 17th century poem Habbie Simson the Piper of Kilbarchan by Robert Sempill. Burns had a knowledge of traditional verse forms but used the Standard Habbie so extensively that it has become known as the Burns Stanza
To A Mouse On turning her up in her nest with the plough, Nov 1785 " is a friendly address. In this poem Burns identifies the animal with the human world, although the poem is essentially about himself.
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The mouse is interesting to him because its plight reminds him of his own. The comparison, however, is neither forced nor sentimental, and the gap between the world of mice and men is bridged by friendly compassion. The poem has charm and vigour, as well as technical skill.
It is true that the Burns family suffered from oppression and poverty and it is often suggested that this is the context behind the poem. This is only partly true. The lines do depict a single man and a single mood but that mood is placed before us in such a way as to exclude such irrelevant particulars as the specific cause of Burns grief and fears in November 1785.
These griefs and fears are common to all men and women at all periods of
human history. It is the most individual yet at the same time the most universal expression of loss and destruction, of personal insecurity and anxiety, that Burns was able to attain.
Burns raises the mouse to to man's level and no level, as far as Burns sees it, is worthier, more dignified or more noble than that of humanity. It is not primarily of himself that Burns is thinking but of his own experience as
representative of all mankind's.
Verse 1. He opens with a direct address. The effective pause after the first four lines adds emphasis to the statement of Burns attitude in the last two lines. Lesser practitioners of this verse form tended to make the pause consistently after the first two lines, so that the last four came together as a unit.
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!
Sleekit in this instance does not mean sly or cunning but sleek coated as in shiny fur. A pattle is a farmers implement, a small spade-like tool used for cleaning the plough.
Verse 2. "Nature's Social Union" is neo-classic English and stands out from the Scots dialect of the poem as a whole, but this sudden intro of a graver phrase is not inappropriate in its context. It gives us a momentary flash of a
philosophical view of an order in nature, which is not made the subject of moralizing but only lightly suggested. Light though the suggestion is, it swells out and provides an implicit moral base for the poem. There is no real pause at all in this
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!
Verse 2 & 3. Having at the end of both of these verses made the bridge between the mouse and himself, he leaves this unused, returning to it at the end of the poem. He goes on to build up a picture of the present plight of the mouse,
contrasting it with the confident plans it had laid for the future.
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!
Daimen means rare or occasional, icker is 1 ear of corn, a thrave is a measure of cut grain consisting of 2 stooks of 12 sheaves each. The lave is the remainder. That line therefore translates as "We should not grudge the occasional grain out of our huge store"
Verse 4. Note the effective use of the diminutive "wee bit housie" to strengthen the note of friendly concern. Again the pause after the first four lines and the strong close of the stanza.
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 winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!
"Bleak December" is followed up in, Verses 5 and 6.
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!
Verse 7. Burns returns to the bridge he had built earlier and in a deft turn to the poem makes clear its real subject. The often quoted 3rd and 4th lines illustrate most effectively Burns ability to cast a thought into the idiom of the folk proverb, but the lines are more than that, for they mark a return to the bridge between the world of mice and men achieved effortlessly and with apparent casualness. Having linked mice and men in that simple phrase he can proceed to speak of "us" which now means all mortal creatures.
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!
Verse 8. The autobiographical nature of the poem becomes fully clear.
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
In the Mouse; Burns effectively uses neo classical English to sound a graver note . This point is worth making since it shows that the English tradition was not always or necessarily a corrupting influence on Burns.
To a Mouse features on my CD of Burns poems
The Greatest Poems in the World.
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John Steinbeck Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck's choosing of the title Of Mice and Men was derived from this poem To a Mouse and deliberately misses out the rest of the verse The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft agley, an' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain for promis'd joy!.
This is virtually the whole story - The shattered dream, the grief and pain instead of the promised plan.
In the poem there is no dubiety at all in the meaning and interpretation. Burns is the philosophical farmer with equally little control over his destiny as that of the mouse. Mankind, though superior to the mouse can think things through, can feel regret, remorse, disappointment, etc.
Steinbeck retains this thought process because Lennie (as the mouse) had a lot of his choices made for him and lives only for the present "the present only touches thee" and at the same time Lennie (as the man) was able to have a dream and devoted himself to the fulfilment of this dream. He also (as the man) was more powerful than many and was capable of killing thus overturning and destroying George's dream of owning land.
The great tragedy is that they were within an inch of achieving that aim.
George (as the man) is also able to plan carefully. He has a "social union" with Lennie but pressure from society "man's dominion" breaks the natural bond he has with Lennie. These human feelings he has under this pressure makes him give up on the dream and give up on Lennie. It has broken the natural bond between George, Lennie and the shared dream.
This shattered dream is the same as the turning up of the mouse's nest. "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley."
An' cozie here, beneath the blast, thou thought to dwell, till crash! the cruel coulter past out thro' thy cell. George and Lennie thought they would be very cosy in their own ranch but Curley's wife was the coulter that smashed that idea.
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble but house or hald - Not for the first time had George and Lennie been turned out for the trouble Lennie had caused. they were constant travellers.
It is also of interest that George and Lennie were also working with grain - loading barley onto the wagons. Steinbeck has very cleverly kept to the theme of the poem. Everything in life is not black and white, sometimes we have no control over our own destiny "An' forward, tho' I canna see, I guess an'fear." With a bit of imagination, Steinbeck has virtually turned an eight verse poem into a novel.