To a Mouse

To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough,
November, 1785

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie, 
O, what a panic's in thy breastie! 
Thou need na start awa sae hasty not, 
          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 in 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!
Robert Burns
Robert Burns

If ever a poet understood the character of his nation, he was Robert Burns. The language he was most fluent in wasn’t so much Scots or English – it was the language of the heart. All too human in his personal life, he carried that humanity over onto the page. Nothing was too small or too large to escape his notice, from a mouse in the mud to God in his heavens. A poet for all seasons, Burns speaks to all, soul to soul.

Read more about this poet
About To a Mouse

Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.

Ishbel McFarlane on 'To a Mouse':

In choosing a poem my first thought was Burns' 'To a Mouse'.

However, it has so long been my favourite poem, I have bored so many people with my enthusiasm for it and it is so 'visible' in the lives of those brought up in the Scottish education system that I felt I should choose something unknown, bring to attention a long-neglected work. And yet, here I am, once again propounding the joys of our 'national bard' writing about a rodent.

But, 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 Burns 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.

Brought up in rural Kinross-shire, Ishbel began reciting poetry at the Perthshire Competition Festival at the age of six. There she performed 'Granny Boot' in absolute terror and very fast.  In 2007 Ishbel was the artistic director of new writing festival 'FebFest'. Since 2006 she has coordinated and compered 'Poetry Schmoetry', an occasional, informal event based in Edinburgh's Bedlam Theatre café, where people come together to recite and listen to poetry. Since her first horror-stricken days on the stage of Perth City Halls, Ishbel has become a fervent advocate of memorising poems, both for improved understanding and immeasurably improved performance, and at 'Poetry Schmoetry' everything is performed by heart.