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To a Mouse by Robert Burns Original Version ~ Modern Translation ~ Theme.
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!
A Hilly Landscape, 1785
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!
Tone: The original is written partially in Scottish dialect which often sounds like a foreign language. He could have used The King’s English but decided not to. The poem is playful by using a mouse as a metaphor but the message is far more significant.
Rhyme Scheme: AAABAB
Meter: iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter
Robert Burns 1759-1796
Burns was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. Growing up in a small, isolated Scottish village, he seemed to understand that the few pleasures in a difficult farming life were all the more precious. He died of heart disease at a young age due to poor nutrition and the difficulty of farming life (“Robert Burns”).
The relationship between man and nature is a major theme in this poem. Burns devotes the poem to contemplating the plight of a field mouse, using the mouse’s circumstances as a metaphor for the lower social classes. This sort of romantic idealism fits in perfectly with the growing social consciousness spreading through Europe during this time period. The romantics, already infatuated with the beauty of the natural world, saw this world as the perfect vehicle for exploring the social issues of the day. Burns use of a mouse as a stand in for the poor, is a prime example of this new thinking.
John Steinbeck used this phrase as the title of his 1937 novel. The novel tells the story of George Milton and his mentally challenged friend Lennie Small. The two travel together working various jobs in an attempt to earn enough money for a home and life of their own. Set against the back drop of the Great Depression, the contrast between those who have and those who have not is stark. George and Lennie can be viewed as mice working for a home of their own, only to have the opportunity taken from them.
Burns uses this phrase to apologize for human kind breaking into the natural order of the world in an attempt to dominate nature. Burns is clearly sympathizing with the plight of nature, in this case the mouse. These attitudes reveal him to be a Romantic poet, as this sort of introspection and preoccupation with nature is one of the most notable subjects of the poetry of the period (Kinsell).
By referring to the mouse as his fellow mortal, Burns is not only elevating the status of the animal, but also revealing that he identifies with his situation. Himself a farmer, Burns is always conscience of class distinction. At the time this poem was written, farmers and ploughmen led a poor, salt of the earth existence, while the royal courts, particularly in France, were dripping with diamonds and decadence. To Burns, a mouse casually turned out of his home by the powerful and unaware is representative of the plight of the lower classes of humanity (Kinsell).
Here we find the image of Burns as the Romantic farmer. Although he must plough the land to make a living from it, he sees himself as living in harmony with nature. He will not use his plough to murder or destroy but to cultivate and nurture. This idealized view of man’s relationship with nature is a trademark of the Romantic age (Perkins).
Although stealing is normally considered wrong, Burns feels that the mouse is justified in taking a small amount of the farmer’s abundant harvest if it is necessary for his survival. Burns is at once humanizing the mouse by referring to his actions as stealing, while also relegating him to a primitive status by calling him a poor beast. The conflict in these images mirrors the conflict many felt about the human poor during this time period.
Burns professes that sacrificing a small amount of his harvest for a hungry animal will bring him blessings. This idea fits in well with the humanist worldview of the enlightenment in favor during this time. Social reforms began to emerge as major issues as people began to accept the notion that those with more than enough should take care of those with too little (Perkins).
Here Burns laments that he is not as fortunate as the mouse, who is only troubled by the present, rather than the past. The dreary prospects Burns must remember may include the bloody religious persecution of the previous century. Although life in Scotland is fairly peaceful at the present time, Burns remembers a time when it was not and worries over an uncertain future (Cristina Keith).
This painting by Thomas Gainsborough is representative of the romantic sentiments of the late 18th century. Soft colours and rounded lines create a warm landscape. Nature is allowed to run wild and free, almost obscuring the distant house. Clearly, the land is more valued than the man made structure. The key to a happy life, this painting seems to say, is to live at harmony with nature, rather than to dominate and obscure the land. Burns would likely agree with these sentiments as throughout, “To a Mouse” the humble field animal is seen as equal to the ploughman, and his grass dwelling as important as a human home.