From a Mouse
The present author being, from her mother’s milk, a lover of the poetic effusions of Mr Robert Burns and all creatures therein (whether mouse, louse, yowe, dug or grey mare Meg) was nonetheless appalled to find, in her slattern’s kitchen, sitting up washing its face in her wok, the following phenomenon: It’s me. The eponymous the moose The To a Mouse that – were I in your hoose, A bit o dust ablow the bed, thon dodd o’ oose That, quick, turns tail, Is – eek! – a livin creature on the loose, Wad gar you wail. Aye, I’ve heard you fairly scraich, you seem Gey phobic ’boot Mice in Real Life yet dream Aboot Man-Mouse Amity? Ye’ll rhyme a ream! Yet, wi skirt wrapt roon, I’ve seen ye staun up oan a chair an scream Like Daphne Broon. But I’m adored – on paper! – ever since First ye got me at the schule, at yince Enchantit – wha’d aye thocht poetry was mince Till ye met Rabbie, My poor, earth-born companion, an the prince O Standard Habbie. For yon is what they cry the form he wrote in An’ you recite. Gey easy, as you ken, to quote in Because it sticks. I will allow it’s stoatin, This nifty stanza He could go to sicc lengths wi, say sicc a lot in – Largs to Lochranza, Plockton to Peebles, Dumfries to Dundee, If a wean kens ony poem aff by hert, it’s Me! Will greet ower ma plough-torn nest, no see The bit o’ a gap Atween the fause Warld o’ Poetry An baited trap. Get Rentokil! Get real! Wha you love ’S the ploughman in the poem, keen to prove – Saut tears, sigh, sympathy – he’s sensitive. Wee sermon: Mice, men, schemes agley, Himsel’ above Cryin me Vermin. Ploughman? That will be right! Heaven-taught? He drank deep o The Bard, and Gray, and Pope – the lot. I, faur frae the spontaneous outburst you thought, Am an artifact. For Man’s Dominion he was truly sorry? Not! ’T was all an act. Burns, baith man and poet, liked to dominate. His reputation wi the lassies wasna great. They still dinna ken whether they love to hate, Or hate to love. He was ‘an awfy man!’ He left them tae their fate, Push came to shove. Couldnae keep it in his breeks? Hell’s bells, damnation, I wad be the vera last to gie a peroration On the daft obsession o this prurient Nation, His amatory antics. He was – beating them tae it by a generation – First o th’ Romantics. Arguably I am a poem wha, prescient, did presage Your Twentyfirst Century Global Distress Age. I’m a female mouse though, he didna give a sausage For ma sparklin een! As for Mother Nature? Whether yez get the message Remains to be seen.
Appointed Scots Makar – the National Poet for Scotland – in 2011, Liz Lochhead is both transgressive and popular; as Anne Varty wrote, ‘her work is that of one woman speaking to many, and one person speaking for many’.
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About this poem
This poem was written as part of the Scottish Poetry Library's Addressing the Bard project in 2009. Twelve contemporary poets were asked to select a poem by Robert Burns and respond to it. Liz Lochhead chose 'To a Mouse'.
Liz Lochhead comments:
This is just a wee parody written out of my enduring love for the original. The first Burns poem which, fifty years ago, when I was ten, I learned off by heart to recite it at the 200th Anniversary Burns Competition in the Miners’ Welfare Hall. (See, I wasn’t a good enough singer to be allowed to do ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ or ‘Ca the Yowes’ or ‘Flow Gently Sweet Afton’... ) Our village – an old mining village turned into a scheme, post-war housing for the nearby industrial town of Motherwell in Lanarkshire – had lots of what they always called ‘Burns Afficionados’ among the working men, the steelmen and the miners and the joiners and the shopkeepers; great enthusiasts for ‘our national bard’ among our teachers and our parents.
A parody, the sincerest form of flattery, a wee bit of fun. But I was trying to laugh at myself and my own hypocrisy at loving the mouse in the poem and being so afraid of the wee creatures in real life – I do stand on chairs and scream like a woman in a comic! And I wanted to do this in a very imperfect version of ‘Burns Stanza’ – or ‘Standard Habbie’ as it’s known. My lines (I tell myself it’s for comic effect) tend to be two syllables, or an extra stress, too long – and you’re really not supposed to run a sentence on into the next stanza, as I do between four and five. The form properly demands to be ‘end-stopped’ and for the sense units and the verses to go hand in hand.
I wanted this mouse to see through human beings and, in its own voice, talk back, take the mickey (aargh, no pun intended) out of Scotsmen – and Scotswomen – who sentimentalise Burns as a simple ‘heaven-taught ploughman’. Whereas, although he was always poor and did work long and hard and unsuccessfully at farming, still he was very thoroughly, if largely <em>self</em>-educated, incredibly widely read. And I especially wanted to satirise our partial and prurient interest in his life and loves and personality rather than concentrating on the words he wrote. Which are the whole point. So varied in tone and register, they go brilliantly swooping, sometimes within the one poem, from high to low, from posh English to intimate Ayrshire dialect with such sophistication, confidence, brio, tenderness, intimacy, humour– and, whiles, frankly relished coorseness.
‘To a Mouse’ – though it’s about a dozen or twenty years before its time – could, arguably, be the first poem of the Romantic era. It’s easy to see why Wordsworth and Keats – and Byron – admired Burns so much. It’s also a very ‘green’ poem, for our time.
I enjoyed the list of animals, the mixture of English and Scots, in the imitation eighteenth-century prose prologue from ‘the author of this poem’ – who is not me, though I do, I’m afraid, have a slattern’s kitchen. And a wok... No mice, though. Stay away!