BURNS’ SEASON: TO A MOUSE

              To A Mouse.
On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough
             November 1785

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
    Wi' bickering brattle!          (hasty scurrying)
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,  (loath)
    Wi' murdering pattle!      (a wooden plough-scraper)  

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 doubtna, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave    (an ear of corn in sheaves)
    'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin' wi the lave,           (rest)
    An' never miss't.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!         (walls, winds)
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,       (build)
    O foggage green!                        (growth)
An' bleak December's wins enduin,
    Baith snell an' keen!             (both bitter and biting)

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary Winter comin' fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,     (cosy)
    Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past     (plough-blade) 
    Out thro thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,   (stubble)
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!                  (hoar-frost cold)

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
THE best-laid schemes o' Mice an'Men
    Gang aft agley,                (go often wrong)
An' lea'e us nought but grief an'pain,
    For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'ee
    On prospects drear!
An'forward tho' I canna see,
    I guess an' fear!   

Like “To a Louse” (see earlier post) this poem uses the Habbie Samson metric form for a dramatic monologue arising out of Burns’ work as a small farmer. The speech is directed to the mouse with the narrator (we inderstand Burns himself) expressing genuine sympathy for the mouse’s predicament, having had her nest turned up in wintry conditions.

The use of the term “man’s dominion” in Stanza 2 is set against the Nature’s “social union”. Man’s overlordship here is seen as leading to the distressful situation for the mouse. The word “dominion” is taken from Genesis 1.26 where man is given that kind of power by God over animal -life. “Social union” implies a relationship which Burns is in favour. We have seen in songs like “Ye Bonny Banks” and ” Corn rigs and Barley Rigs” the bonding between human and the natural world.

In fact, Burns’ sympathetic feeling for the animal and its needs is an expression of that kind of social bonding, as is suggested by the phrasing “fellow-mortal”. Indeed, living close to the land in a humble cottage Burns as a small farmer would have been well aware of the dangers of poverty, hunger and homelessness, as is suggested by the “fear” the poem ends with. So in commiserating with the mouse he is expressing feelings very real to him.

The strength of this connection is specially brought out in the poem by the lines :

Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste 
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here beneath the blast,
     Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter passed
    Out thro'thy cell.

 

Tremendous power is given, by the poet, to “Crash!”. This is reinforced by the continuing alliteration of that “c” sound in “cruel coulter”. Although the coulter is specific to the mouse’s nest the sharp blade of the plough is a potent image of violent attack. Looking at the stanza as a whole we can see that every thought would be as apposite to peasant life as it would be to that of the life of the mouse, and indeed more so. It is difficult, then, not to see that the extra power given to the crash of the coulter would be equivalent to a rich master using his dominion tyrannically by taking cruel possession of the tenant’s land. Indeed when we go throught the poem we discover the equivalence between the poor peasant and the mouse is maintained throughout.

So, although our first reaction to the poem might be that it is a pleasingly sentimental picture of animal life, its very power is, in reality, a more profound study of the ways in which animal life and tenant and peasant life may be under attack by cruel, or heedless, dominion.

The poem then shows not only the poet as gentle and sympathtic in his feeling for the mouse but passionately opposed to heartless treatment of the vulnerable.

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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