In honor of my trip to Scotland, the harvest season, nature poetry, and Scottish National Poet Robert Burns, this post shares a few excerpts and a discussion of his famous poem “To a Mouse.”
See the end of the post for links to more information and the poem’s full text, as well as a list of earlier posts from this blog series on nature poetry by well-known poets.
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, 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!
The first thing you may notice in these first two stanzas is the unorthodox orthography. Contractions for words like “cowering” and “timorous” and unusual terms such as “sleekit,” “bickering,” and “brattle” used in stanza one challenge the average reader.
The poem begins in a Scots dialect using conversational vernacular. This approach both conveys the startling nature of the encounter for the ploughman and creates intimacy between speaker and subject. The ploughman deeply sympathizes with his frightened, thwarted neighbor who happens to be a mouse. The regular, liberal use of exclamation points heightens this effect.
Distinctly formal diction then counteracts that sense of closeness with a thoughtful, reverential tone when Burns opts for the dramatic “O” and distancing pronouns “thy,” “thou,” and “thee” in place of “your” and “you.” Such choices set the mouse on a pedestal, almost as an object of worship.
Between word choice and ideas, the poem amounts to a humble, emotional message of significant length, firmly declaring Burns’s love for even the smallest wildlife despite its serving no utilitarian purpose as either food source, working animal, or even personal pet.
Scots terms in the first stanza:
- sleekit – adj., sleek or, figuratively, slick (in Outlander ep105, Willie facetiously praises braggart Angus’s sexual prowess using this word: “Aye, aye, ye sleekit dog!”)
- na – not
- awa – away
- sae – so
- bickering – adj., hurried
- brattle – n., scamper
- wad – would
- laith – loath
- rin – run
- pattle – plowstaff (“paddle”)
The stark shift to a philosophical tone in stanza 2 coincides with a shift in dialect from Scots to more standard English. While still directly addressing the mouse, this stanza’s language sets it apart from the rest, presenting the poet’s main thesis in words that non-Scots readers also will easily understand. Stanza 3 then returns to dialect, which persists through the end of the poem.
Central to the poem’s meaning, an oft-quoted line appears in stanza 7 of 8:
7 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. An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain For promised joy. 8 Still thou art 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!
This famous line, of course, inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.
Scots terms in the last two stanzas:
- no thy lane – not alone
- gang aft a-gley – often go awry
- lea-e – leave
- e’e – eye
Rhyme scheme. “To a Mouse” gives us a unique opportunity to explore the nature of rhyme. The overall pattern in the poem for each stanza is a rhyme scheme of aaabab. Six lines containing two distinct sets of rhymes in each stanza. The repetitive sound of the first three lines creates a build-up of emotion and suspense. Next, the change late in each stanza accents the new indented lines of a different rhyming pair, leaving us with those ideas to ponder as we move on to the next stanza.
The effect of his use of near rhyme adds interesting possibilities. Debates have surfaced over the centuries as to whether writing in dialect is a legitimate enterprise. Burns, among others, was heavily criticized by some for his chosen approach in cases like “To a Mouse.” As time has passed, judgments of acceptableness have evolved and varied. Ultimately, it is each reader’s prerogative to judge the work being read. So you decide: Do you see an artful use of “slant” or “near” rhyme, a perversion of standard English, or something else entirely? Consider the patterns and their aberrations.
In “To a Mouse,” if we go by only the vowel sound of the very last syllable of each line and follow standard English expectations, the rhyme schemes of the dominant rhyming lines in each stanza (lines 1, 2, 3 and 5 as opposed to the indented 4th and 6th lines) would be as follows:
- St. 1: beastie breastie hasty thee – a a a a
- St. 2: dominion union opinion companion – a a a a
- St. 3: thieve live thrave lave – a b ? c
- St. 4: ruin strewin new ane ensuin – a a b a
- St. 5: waste fast blast past – a b b b
- St. 6: stibble nibble trouble dribble – a a b a
- St. 7: lane vain a-gley joy – a a a b
- St. 8: me thee e’e see – a a ? a
On the surface, with simple line analysis, there appears to be no consistent rhyming pattern at all, but at least the first two lines of each stanza usually rhyme with each other. For larger patterns, only the first two stanzas of these groupings, that we can say with certainty, consistently rhyme with each other.
In this context, as one might expect, the more formal second stanza is among those with the most regular rhyme. The most divergent vowel sounds occur between the first three lines and line 5 of stanza 7, as the long “a” sound in “lane,” “vain,” and “a-gley” doesn’t even remotely resemble the vowel sound in “joy.” (Farther down the page, I discuss the special cases of the Scots terms in bold above.)
The only dominant pattern overall is of consonance or assonance ending each line, specifically, with the consonants n, v, st, and b, as well as the e vowel sounds. All stanza 7 gives us is the visual common y consonant between “a-gley” and “joy.” Like stanza 2, stanza 7 is an outlier.
The result of this close investigation might suggest unintended sloppiness on Burns’s part.
Form and meaning. However, is it coincidence that the themes of stanzas 2 and 7 match their respective degrees of exactness in rhyme? Standard English, -ion endings, and the idea of unity in stanza 2? Dialect, divergent line endings, and the idea of destroyed plans in stanza 7? Even if it was done subconsciously, Burns was an artist, an educated man, an intelligent person, and, like the rest of us, an incorrigible “schemer.” So, no. It’s not likely to be coincidence.
And what about their placement in the poem–a sort of thesis position for stanza 2 and similar location for stanza 7, the second and second-to-last stanzas, placed symmetrically in relation to one another across the whole poem?
Perhaps Burns is making a statement not only about man’s relationship with nature–between the broken union with the wild and the industrialization of the field–but also about man’s relationship with man, particularly, the relationship between the masterly English and the servile Scottish peoples. Or, is it a more egalitarian critique of the hubris and, thus, inevitably negative effects, of at least some of everyone’s best intentions?
Boldfaced Scots (no pun intended): I used question marks to indicate my ignorance about how to pronounce the bolded Scots words. I would be inclined to pronounce “breastie” like “beastie,” assuming a humorous intent on first reading the poem, but it could be pronounced with the short e vowel sound as in the typical pronunciation of “breast.” As one reads more of the poem, its serious tone becomes apparent.
In the next instance, not knowing the word at all, I would most likely take it on face value and pronounce “thrave” like “grave.” Lastly, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce “e’e” as a contraction of “eye.” Is it the long e as in “thee,” the long a in “way,” or the long i sound as in the standard “eye”?
At the very least, first-hand knowledge of this Scots dialect in its 18th-century context and perhaps a scholarly knowledge of Burns’s intent and poetic patterns across his body of work would be required to say definitively. It’s possible, however, that pronunciation could vary even further, placing spoken vowel sounds, not just of these isolated words but of any number of others, in between the surmised alternatives we know from standard English.
There is no single, perfected version of a dialect of any language, just as what we think of as standard language can vary within itself as well. In other words, there are multiple Scots dialects within the umbrella of English dialects.
If Burns and other writers in dialect teach us anything about spoken language, it’s that it is subjective and fluid, different and constantly changing across all sorts of cultural boundaries. Those boundaries are not stark black dividers, but gray realms of overlapping traditions and identities. Whatever linguistic purists might say, certainly spoken language, along with written language in many ways, is a living, breathing, moving–and sometimes wild–thing.
Meter and rhythm.
Further evidence of Burns’s well-laid schemes emerges with a look at the rhythmic elements of the poem. The meter is set down regularly as iambic tetrameter paired with iambic dimeter, and the changes closely match the rhyme scheme shifts. Lines 1-3 and 5 follow tetrameter, with 4 iambs per line, and lines 4 and 6 use dimeter, with 2 iambs per line. An iamb is a set of two syllables, also known together as a metric foot, that begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
A simple illustration of an iambic foot is in the infinitive form of any one-syllable verb: to go, to breathe, to call, to jump, to know. We pronounce this pair of words with emphasis on the unique word in each pair: go, breathe, call, jump, and know. We don’t pronounce each set in the opposite manner, which would result in phrases with the sound of “TOO go,” “TOO breathe,” and so on, making the words sound strange, like the Roman garment “toga” or imaginary “tookle” for “to call” or “tune-o” for “to know.” Theoretically, one could create an iambic phrase solely out of infinitive verb phrases:
to WANT to KNOW, to WALK to YOU to SMILE (iambic pentameter, five metric feet of syllable pairs, the first being unstressed, the second stressed)
where the capitalized words signify landing on them more heavily than on the word “to.”
Often, then, the stressed half of the metric foot (in these cases, the iamb) is where the more important words, and natural stresses in multi-syllabic words, arise. Another iambic pentameter line:
And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words if, fail, call, know, left make the central message.
The unstressed half of an iambic line is where the connecting words, less important words, and natural lack of stresses in multi-syllabic words would be.
And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words And, I, to, you’ll, I’ve are links and pronouns.
The unique feature of the iambic lines in “To a Mouse” is their often ending with a weak final syllable after the recognizable pattern of four or two iambs. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain this feature, ending on words like “beastie,” “startle,” “ruin,” and “dribble”–all words with a strong first syllable. There are exceptions even in these stanzas, with lines 4 and 6 in stanza 4 ending in “green” and “keen,” for instance, with stressed final syllables.
Still, the overarching tendency to add half an iambic foot to the end of many lines creates a lilting rhythm and lightness in tone, suggesting affectionate tenderness, as we sense from words like “beastie” and “nibble,” which are emotionally similar to diminutives like “sweetie” and cutie.”
The alternating stanzas with stressed last syllables and regular iambic feet include, from stanza 3, lines 1 (tetrameter, 4 stresses) and 4 (dimeter, 2 stresses):
“I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; / . . . . ‘S a sma‘ request:”
The final two stanzas, shown above, also have regular iambic meter throughout, emphasizing the message there contained, for example, in the poem’s final two lines:
“An’ forward, tho‘ I canna see, / I guess an’ fear!”
In his poem, Burns deliberately places men and mice on an equal plane, both subject to the whims of fate and nature. Equating man with mouse is a startling choice, provoking thought and sometimes indignation. But the poet takes it one step farther, elevating the mouse above the man again in the final stanza: You know only how to live in the moment, you free and lucky mouse, whereas I’m a slave to regret for the past and to fear of the future.
For the full text of this poetic ploughman’s speech to a mouse, visit “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. For an annotated version defining all the Scots terms, try scholarly sources such as page 748 of the full fifth edition (paperback) of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. My source for the terms I defined was the fourth edition.
The Burns legacy.
To learn more about Scots poet Robert Burns, check out the extensive article at Poetry Foundation. I also enjoyed visiting The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which featured artifacts, writings, illustrations, and recordings about authors Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many other sites in Scotland dedicated to Burns and his legacy that I did not get to visit. I’ll share more about Scottish literary tourism in an upcoming post.
As the National Poet of Scotland, Robert Burns even has his own holiday: Burns Night, January 25th, when people in Scotland and worldwide Scots create and enjoy a special feast and a night of beloved poetry.
Previous posts in this series, featuring nature poems from both the Canon and a few contemporary poets, include:
- Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
- Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1: Sun Spots
- Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
- Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
- Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
- Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath
I also wrote about the use of Burns’s work in the first Outlander TV series by STARZ:
Robert Burns’s fellow poet and countryman Hugh MacDiarmid built on his literary legacy in the 20th century. His work continues the series: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots.