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17 Jan 2020

To a Mouse

A large statue of a mouse sitting up on its hind legs with its tail wrapped around the base.
A not-so-wee mousie at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
One of his best-known earlier poems, Robert Burns wrote this in 1785 whilst working as a farmer (it’s been said he literally wrote it in the field). It appeared the following year in ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’.

Burns’s distress at accidentally destroying a wee field mouse’s nest moves into a comment on his relationship with the natural world. The evocative language and tender care towards the tiny creature has meant that this poem is popular with school children. The poem inspired the title of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and its most famous line has become a common proverb for when things go wrong.

To a Mouse

On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785

Wee sleekit, cowrin, timrous beastie,
O, what a panics 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!

Im truly sorry mans dominion
Has broken Natures 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;
Ill get a blessin wi the lave,
An never misst!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
Its silly was the wins are strewin!
An naething, now, to big a new ane,
O foggage green!
An bleak Decembers wins 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 thous turnd out, for a thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winters 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 leae us nought but grief an pain,
For promisd joy!

Still thou art blest, compard wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my ee,
On prospects drear!
An forward, tho I canna see,
I guess an fear!

Handy glossary:

sleekit = glossy-coated; timrous = frightened; bickering brattle = noisy rush; laith = unwilling; pattle = plough-scraper

whyles = sometimes; maun = must; daimen icker in a thrave = odd ear in 24 sheaves; lave = remainder

silly = feeble; wa= walls; big = build; foggage = a coarse grass; snell = bitter

coulter = ploughshare

stibble = stubble; But house or hald = without house or dwelling; thole = endure/suffer; cranreuch = hoar-frost

thy lane = alone; gang aft agley = often go awry

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