To a Mouse
Gilbert Burns, brother of the poet, wrote that this poem was actually composed while Burns was plowing a field. The poem demonstrates the poet's sympathetic attitude toward nature and toward man. It also suggests the preoccupation with man and his place in nature that would become one of the hallmarks of the more introspective poetry of the Romantic period.
Background: "To a Mouse"
Many of Burns' early poems were based on his observations of the world around him. Born the son of farmer in Ayrshire, Burns was literally "bred to the plow." He is the formost example of a "Natural Poet," a poet without the formal training expected of more polished, "high poets" such as Alexander Pope or Samuel Johnson.
Nevertheless, in his use of Scottish dialect Burns was working within a long if lately moribund tradition of Scottish poetry.
The Dedication to his Edinburgh edition of poems highlights the tension found in much of Burns' satirical verse. There were clear distinctions among classes, and Burns, although proud, was always conscious of his humble origins. His poetry is preoccupied with the nobility of the poor, the hypocrisy of the powerful, and, broadly speaking, the richly complex condition of humanity.
Commentary on "To a Mouse"
Before the first line of verse, Burns sets forth the occasion for "To a Mouse." Maintaining his poetical (and sometimes real-life) persona as plowman poet, he explains that the occasion for this poem was his destruction, unawares, of a mouse's nest as he pursued his winter plowing. Ostensibly the poem is directed at the mouse, the "sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie," but humanity is the calculated target.
Burns uses the six-line stanza in rime couée, a favorite with him. An old stanzaic form used often in Renaissance Scottish verse, it was also known as the standard "Habbie." It was a good choice. Burns makes skillful use of its repetition and abrupt shifts in verse length.
The first three lines develop the idea in each stanza, reinforcing the logic by maintaining line length and using the rhyming triplet. Analysis of the second stanza is instructive.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion Has broken Nature's social union, An' justifies that ill opinion Which makes thee startle 10 At me, thy poor earth-born companion, An' fellow-mortal!The first two lines present a central theme of the poem: that nature has been disrupted by man's "dominion." The third line presents a logical outcome when the situation is analyzed: an ill opinion is justified. But careful analysis is a human trait. The mouse simply reacts, and the short fourth line, with its interruption of the initial rhymes, presents a startled reaction. The fifth line returns to the focus of the stanza, humanity. In this case humanity is embodied in the plowman poet who is "poor" and the mouse's "earth-born companion." The final line, in its way as startling as its companion line the fourth, connects the mouse and poet directly.
Understanding the rich tone of sympathy is central to any reading of the poem. On one level, the poet is clearly sad for the mouse. So clear is the tone that even the more difficult Scots diction is understood as reinforcing our sympathy for the rodent. But there is also a less obvious level of sympathy--for the mouse's "earth-born companion."
The technical aspects of the fifth stanza are also remarkable as Burns lulls the reader through the fourth line with a series of iambs only to shift the metrical stress (with a spondee) and mimic the crashing of coulter into nest. Again, there is significant poetical skill beneath the poem's surface; in other hands the poem could easily slip into a tone of glib sentimentality.
There is a dramatic turn at the seventh stanza, signaled by the logical transition, "but":
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane, In proving foresight may be vain: The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley 40 An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain For promised joy.The mouse who had carefully planned for the coming of winter is not alone in its plight. The third line and fourth lines, two of Burns' most famous (and most ill-quoted), firmly link the fate of all mortals. The turn, however, is not complete. The final stanza reminds us of our human condition, with all its unsatisfactory ramifications. As the mouse scampers toward the side of the field and, perhaps, an unthinking fate, the plowman drudges forward, only certain that he must continue on.
To a Mouse On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785 Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, 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, 5 Wi' murd'ring pattle! I'm truly sorry man's dominion Has broken Nature's social union, An' justifies that ill opinion Which makes thee startle 10 At me, thy poor earth-born companion, An' fellow-mortal! I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; What then? poor beastie, thou maun live! A daimen icker in a thrave 15 'S a sma' request; I'll get a blessin wi' the lave, And never miss't! Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin! Its silly wa's the win's are strewin! 20 An' naething, now, to big a new ane, O' foggage green! An' bleak December's winds ensuin, Baith snell an' keen! Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste, 25 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. 30 That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble Has cost thee mony a weary nibble! Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble, But house or hald, To thole the winter's sleety dribble, 35 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 a-gley. 40 An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain For promised joy. Still thou art blest, compared wi' me! The present only toucheth thee: But och! I backward cast my e'e 45 On prospects drear! An' forward, tho' I canna see, I guess an' fear!back to