"TO A MOUSE" Robert Burns (1785) Robert Burns included one of the most famous lines of poetry in his "To a Mouse: On Turning Her Nest, With the Plough, November, 1785." His well-known sentiment regarding mice and men would later be adopted by the American author John Steinbeck for his novel Of Mice and Men (1937). The title evoked the theme of the poem regarding a search for home and the propensity of fate to render the most carefully exacted plans chaotic. He employs tail rhyme in his six-line stanzas, in which the fourth and sixth lines are much shorter than the others. This format reflects the traditional Scottish technique of "standart Habbie," the term derived from Robert Sem-pill's poem "Life and Death of Habbie Simson" (ca. 1640), in which the poet both praises and makes fun of his subject. Another Scottish poet, Robert Fergusson, had earlier done the same in his "The Daft Days," and Burns acknowledged his debt to Fergusson.
Burns set the scene with his title, and readers understand that the speaker has destroyed the home of a mouse while plowing his field. He begins with a sympathetic, yet humorous tone, as he assures the mouse, a "Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie," that she need not scream in fear "Wi' bickering brattle," as he will not chase her down "Wi' murd'ring pattle!" The speaker apologizes for the fact that "man's dominion / Has broken Nature's social union," then fashions himself as "thy poor, earth-born companion, / An' fellow-mortal." His address turns more serious as he considers the mortality of all living creatures, and his own problems that grow from his poverty. The speaker shows his empathy by telling her he understands that she "may thieve," as that is the only way she can live. The morsel she would require remains "a sma' request," one the farmer will grant. Then he bemoans "Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin! / It's silly wa's the winds are strewin!" as he watches the remnants of her nest scattered by "bleak December's winds." Assuming the mouse's perspective, he notes that she must have observed "the fields laid bare an' wast" and acknowledged "winter comin fast" by preparing a cozy home and thinking herself safe from the "blast," "Till crash! The cruel coulter past / Out thro' thy cell." He laments the fact that she is now exposed to "sleety dribble" then begins the seventh stanza by informing her she is not alone
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice and men, Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy!
As the poem concludes, the speaker muses that he may be even worse off than a field mouse, which only suffers in the present. He, on the other hand, has to suffer from his past, as well as fear his future:
But och! I backward cast my e'e, on prospects drear!
"To a Mouse" showcases Burns's talent for depicting the demanding life of the Scottish peasant class. In many of his poems he succeeded in convincing the reader that problems could be overcome through the efforts of the human spirit. That his speaker embraces the mouse as a fellow creature worthy of concern when Burns freely and often rejected those who believed themselves his social superiors says much about his attitude toward life.
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