Robert Burns: TO A MOUSE

On Turning Her up in her Nest with the Plough, November 1785

Gilbert Burns says, `The verses to the Mouse and Mountain Daisy were composed on the occasions mentioned, and while the author was holding the plough: I could point out the particular spot where each was composed. Holding the plough was a favourite situation with Robert for poetic compositions, and some of his best verses were produced while he was at that exercise.'

`John Blane,' says Mr Chambers, `who was farm-servant at Mossgiel at the time of its composition, still (1838) lives at Kilmarnock. He stated to me that he recollected the incident perfectly. Burns was holding the plough, with Blane for his driver, when the little creature was observed running off across the field. Blane, having the pettle, or plough-cleaning utensil, in his hand at the moment, was thoughtlessly running after it, to kill it, when Burns checked him, but not angrily, asking what ill the poor mouse had ever done him. The poet then seemed to his driver to grow very thoughtful, and, during the remainder of the afternoon, he spoke not. In the night time he awoke Blane, who slept with him, and, reading the poem which had in the meantime been composed, asked what he thought of the mouse now.'

First published in the Kilmarnock edition it has moved countless readers and critics including Snyder who acclaimed it the outstanding achievement in that volume: `the tragedy of the mouse has become the tragedy of Burns himself, and of all heart-broken folk who review the past with regret, or await the future with misgiving.'

Behind what is ostensibly an inspired occasional poem is the tension between philosophical faith and personal insecurity. Informing the address is Burns' Deistic belief in a natural religion, a notion reinforced by his reading of favourite poets such as Thomson and Pope. Subjectively, Burns was in a poignant position in November 1785: the previous year his father had died, a victim of `the rapacious hell-hounds that growl in the kennel of justice'; the previous month his brother John had died at the age of sixteen. Burns had catastrophe on his consciousness.


   Wee, sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie,               glossy-coated
   O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
   Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
      Wi' bickering brattle!                             rushing/scurry
   I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,                           loth
      Wi' murd'ring pattle!                              plough-scraper
   
   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, whiles, but thou may thieve;                   sometimes
   What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!      
   A daimen icker in a thrave                     odd ear in 24 sheaves
      'S a sma' request;
   I'll get blessin wi' the lave,                             remainder
      An' never miss't!
   
   Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
   It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!                        feeble
   An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
      O' foggage green!                                    coarse grass
   An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
      Baith snell an' keen!                                      bitter
   
   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                      ploughshare
      Out thro' thy cell.
   
   That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,                     stubble
   Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
   Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
      But house or hald,                                without/holding
   To thole the winter's sleety dribble,                         endure  
      An' cranreuch cauld !                                  hoar-frost
   
   But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,                              alone
   In proving foresight may be vain;
   The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
      Gang aft agley,                                     often go awry
   An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
      For promis'd joy !
   
   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!