»  Robert Burns' "To a Mouse"


To a Mouse

by Robert Burns, 1759-1796


•  Background

The plain, forthright poems of Robert Burns suffer from being written in Lallans, the dialect of English spoken in the Lowlands of Scotland. The phonetics, vocabulary, and grammar of Lallans all differ considerably from standard English. As with the English of Chaucer, though, it's worth making the effort just for the pleasures to be found in Burns' verse. The effort anyway isn't great. A careful reading of Burns' great comic narrative poem "Tam o'Shanter" with the aid of a glossary will give you enough of an "ear" for Lallans.

"To a Mouse" is prefaced thus:  On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November, 1785. If the date is correct — Burns' curriculum vitae does not inspire any great faith in his reliability — the poet would have been 26 years old.

•  Notes

"sleekit" = sleek

"bickering" = hurrying

"brattle" = scampering

"laith" = loth

"pattle" = the shaft of a plough

"whyles" = sometimes, once in a while

"maun" = must

"daimen icker" = an occasional ear [of wheat]

"thrave" = 24 sheaves of wheat

"the lave" = the rest, what's left over

"wa'" = wall

"to big" = to build

"foggage" = meadow grass

"snell" = bitter, biting

"coulter" = "The iron blade fixed in front of the share in a plough; it makes a vertical cut in the soil, which is then sliced horizontally by the share" — OED

"stibble" = stubble

"hald" = your holding, the land you live on

"thole" = endure, suffer

"cranreuch" = hoar-frost

"cauld" = cold

"thou art no thy lane" = you are not alone

"gang" = go

"aft" = often

"agley" = awry, askew


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

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,
                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
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
                '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 winds 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 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,
                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 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!