Robert Burns (1759-1796) is Scotland’s national poet and known as ‘The Ploughman Poet’, amongst many other nicknames. He was the oldest of seven children of a farmer who repeatedly moved and had an unsettled life himself, dying young with 12 children.
To a Mouse is an apology from Burns to a field mouse after disturbing its nest when out ploughing. He considers this act to be more broadly symbolic of man exerting its control over nature, and upsetting the balance of relations between people, animals and the environment. The poem is written in the Scots dialect, and will be easier to understand if you read it aloud (you could even try a adopting a Scottish accent!). If you would like to read a standard English version, you can find it here: http://www.robertburns.org/inenglish/extracts.shtml
To a Mouse
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Wi’ bickering brattle!
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,
I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
‘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,
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.
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;
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!
Questions for reflection
- What does Burns see that he has in common with the mouse? And what are the major differences he can see between them?
- Is “man’s dominion” a good or bad thing for the mouse and for nature more widely? How does this link to the Genesis reading we looked at earlier this week?
- Burns is truly sorry for destroying the mouse’s “wee bit housie”. Is there a time when you have inadvertently killed an animal or destroyed its home? How did it make you feel? When could a Christian justify this kind of act?
- How do nature and humanity share similar plights?
Some further reading
Robert Burns, Banks of Cree
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:Part VII