“To a Mouse”

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s 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.

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’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s 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 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 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 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 canna see,
I guess an’ fear!


  • “To a Mouse,” a poem by Robert Burns from 1785, is most famous as the source of the aphorism about the best laid plans of mice and men that gives John Steinbeck the title of his novella. The story goes that Burns, unable to support himself as a poet, was working on a farm and inadvertently plowed up a mouse’s nest, later composing this poetic apology. Burns loved to cultivate the image of himself as a noble rustic, taking everyday objects and events as his themes and writing partially in Scots, a language associated with the speech of uneducated people in Scotland. (Actually, the poem makes use of a range of dialects from standard English to educated Scots to peasant Scots.) Scots shares many grammatical features and most of its vocabulary with English. Reading “To a Mouse” aloud can help with understanding words that are transliterations of English, and a “translation” of the text can be found here: http://www.rbwf.org.uk/poems/translations/554.htmI’m drawn to this poem in part because of the whimsical choice of addressee, the way that Burns identifies humans and mice as equally subject to fate while at the same time confronting issues of mortality and foresight. Burns’s narrator suggests a crucial distinction between humans and other animals to be an understanding of the passage of time. I love the blend of down-to-earth language with more elevated words and concepts, the way informal language is placed into metrically precise stanzas, how Burns echoes such mock-heroic poems as “The Rape of the Lock.” I see him participating in conversations about Enlightenment ideas (“Nature’s social union,” eg) and reminding all the salon-goers that farmers, too, are capable of philosophical reflection. To me, this sort of implosion of the hierarchies by which we normally judge people, speech, and writing is very exciting, since it challenges received ideas of what language ‘counts’ as literary and about who is entitled to create.Comment by Mary McGlynn — November 17, 2011 @ 5:53 pm
  • That was wonderful! Burns’ compassion for a mouse seems rooted in the understanding of his own plight. His emphasis on the faulty plans of men reminds me of one of the Proverbs (Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. Proverbs 19:21) In the case of Burns, he seems to be speaking of fate rather than religion, and the way in which it governs the lives of men…despite their hearts, or their plans. Burns somehow leads us to feel for ourselves the very sympathy we would feel for a helpless animal. It is a sobering thought in a city where we lack time enough to consider how fickle tomorrow can be. In a city where we are marking our planners and calendars months in advance, it is humbling to know that we are often as vulnerable as a mouse, and his winter home.Comment by Jessica Rozario — November 18, 2011 @ 11:34 pm
  • This poem is witty. Makes me enjoy reading it. I feel that the author saw the mouse running, hiding and trying to survive just has man needs to prepare for the winter just as the mouse was moving indoors looking for shelter for the winter.
    Great use of elision which was utilized in 50% of the Lines.
    Though the poem came off at first dark and disgusting, it changed — using the doggerel in the 11th line (3rd paragraph) making it more fun and playful by just thinking the humor of chasing down the tiny creature.
    Another great use of the poetry terms was onomatopoeia.Making the poem funny and lighthearted and the situition at hand. It reminded one of my favorite books by Herge called Tintin which was written by an Belgium write and using Old English. One of my favorite character was the Captain Haddock who adopted the scottish accent and was always using words similar to “bickering brattle”. I hope to enjoy reading more from the author.Comment by Christine Persaud — November 25, 2011 @ 11:36 pm
  • Professor Grace Schulman asked me to post this for her:Comment on Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse”Thanks for asking. The book that changed my life is The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I found it early on, and I still hear the poet’s passionate rhythms beating against the meter, lifting my heart with its resonant praise of life even on dark days. As for your second question, I read recently, on the suggestion of Jacqueline Osherow, Don Juan by Lord Byron. It had me laughing out loud. He has and conveys a range of knowledge, is hilarious, gossipy, caustic, bitchy, and through it all urges reform and asserts the rights of the common poor over the gains of the rich and powerful. We need Lord Byron in our time.

    If you listen to it closely, you’ll find “To a Mouse” to be a poem for our troubled time. The poet identifies so completely with the mouse that we can perceive the man’s fate — our fate — in the creature’s overturned nest. His views on human cruelty are both oblique and emphatic: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union.”
    What I like best about “To a Mouse” is the dialect. It sounds fresh, real. The poet is a divided man, an outsider looking in. Again, listen closely: He’s writing in an English form, an English meter, obviously with a high command of the language, and yet he conveys his deepest feelings in his Scottish dialect. I think of the great poems of Derek Walcott. such as Sainte Lucie, mostly in Creole. It makes me wish I had a dialect to write in, perhaps a language spoken at home, and could resort to it occasionally in anger or pity or fear. Do you have any such dialect?

    Grace Schulman
    Distinguished Professor, English
    (On Fellowship Leave) — November 26, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

  • Burns wasn’t “mousin around” when he wrote this- (Sorry I couldn’t help it.) Then again, maybe he was just a wee bit. In the same manner Jerry teaches Tom, the mouse instructs Burns, and the poet enlightens the reader with a lesson about life. As a result, Bruns skillfully illustrates how genuine relationships are formed, whether some chose to accept this or not: the poet clearly embraces it. And instead of allowing the mind to automatically concentrate on the obvious differences, Burns directs his attention on what connects them.What connects mice and men? Basically, is that they exist: the mouse provides somewhat of a psychological confirmation for Burns when his counterpart cannot. In fact, the poet is able to relate quite well to the mouse: it reminds Burns of his own troubles. The mouse represents of that dark, dirty, secretive part and humiliated part of Burns.

    The link between Burns and his tiny buddy isn’t syrupy or pushed on the reader, but exemplified through their pleasant interaction. This made it easier for the reader to nibble on. At one point in life, all beings are forced to swallow that nothing is promised and that death is inevitable. The mouse lives in the moment without self-image, unregretful of the past and carefree of what is to come: Burns is envious of this. Certainly, if we pay close attention, as Burns proved, the least of things can offer the most. Just ask Mickey! (Sorry couldn’t resist again)

    Comment by Darren Edwards — December 7, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  • I think it’s great that Burns draws such an intinmate connection between himself and the mouse as both being mortal creatures of Earth. In that second stanza it seems that he has discovered how fragile life is and apologizes to the “mouse” but I think the apology is more for himself because he regrets the ways of the world. The poem ends with Burns expressing envy because the mouse doesn’t regret the past and doesn’t anticipate the future.Comment by Jennifer Torres — December 13, 2011 @ 11:37 pm
  • So its true that no man is an island unless he capsizes or is wider than Guam. Im happy you cleared that up.

Comment by Frederick Boudrieau — January 2, 2012 @ 7:15 am