Friday, September 19, 2014

Burns's Shelterless Mouse

'To a Mouse' is one of my favourite poems, which I came across during school. Robert Burns wrote it in 1785, after he indeed met by putting athwart a nest of mice amid agricultural pursuits, according to his brother. He writes it from the point of view of marauding man, with a half-affectionate disrespect that is already in the first lines. I am guessing from a knowledge of English rather than of Scots, but he is naming the mouse 'little, sleek, cowering and timorous.'

Its Scots Wikipedia entry is worth citing here:
'To a Mouse' (Scots: Tae a Moose) is a Scots poem written bi Robert Burns in 1785 that wis includit in the Kilmarnock Volume, his first settin furth o musradry.


I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
                               Which makes thee startle,

Northumberland Bestiary: folio 33.
Between 1250 and 1260.
via Wikimedia Commons

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' 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!

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!

'Translation' with hints from Wikipedia's and Wikisource's articles, linked below. Errors are purely mine. I am keeping the 'thee's and 'thou's, even though I think that they are not quite proper (or rather, not proper in comparison to ordinary English usage; surely it should be 'thou art blessed,' etc.).


Wee, sleek, cowering, timorous little beast! Oh, what a panic is in thy breast. Thou needn't start away so hastily in a hastening scamper. I would be loth to run and chase thee with this murdering pattle. I'm truly sorry man's dominion has broken Nature's social union, and justifies the ill opinion that makes thee startle at me — thy poor, earth-born companion and fellow mortal. I have few doubts that thou may thieve at times. What of it? Poor little beast, thou must live! A stray ear in twenty-four sheaves of grain* is a small request; I'll get a blessing with the leave, and never miss it. Thy bitty little house, too, in ruins! It's silly1 the way the winds are strewing! There's nothing, now, to set up* a new house of green foggage2. And the bleak December wind's ensuing, both bitter and keen. Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste, and weary winter coming fast; and cozily here, beneath the blast, thou had thought to dwell. Till crash! the cruel plough-tip3 travelled out through thy cell. That little bitty heap of leaves and stubble4 has cost thee many a weary nibble! Now thou is turned out, for all thy trouble, without house and home5, to suffer the winter's sleet-like rain6 and the chilly hoarfrost.* But, little mouse, you are not proving that foresight may be in vain alone.* The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go amiss,* and leave us naught but grief and pain in exchange for promised joy! Thou are still blessed compared with me; only the present toucheth thee. But — alas! — I cast my eye backward on dreary prospects, and forward — although I cannot see, I guess and fear!


1. silly, might be 'silly' in the familiar sense
2. foggage ["First Known Use: 1775"] (Merriam-Webster, online)
"(UK, dialect) Dead or decaying grass remaining on land through the winter." (Wiktionary. "Part or all of this entry has been imported from the 1913 edition of Webster's Dictionary, which is now free of copyright and hence in the public domain")
3. coulter "Iron blade fixed in front of share in plough. [OE culter f. L culter]" (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 1964. p. 278.)
4. stibble "chiefly Scottish variant of STUBBLE" (Merriam-Webster, online)
5. hald, hauld "A hold"/"A habitation"/"A stronghold"/etc. (Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, online)
6. dribble "drizzling rain" (Ibid.)

(There are more ambiguities. To make an example of the first words, sleekit also means "parasitical" or "deceitful," according to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, but Merriam-Webster permits the first meaning of "sleek, smooth." Edit: and a pattle is, according to the Etymological Dictionary, "A stick with which the ploughman clears away the earth that adheres to the plough," a concept that is familiar to me from the lawnmower of my childhood, which had to be cleared of the grass that was sticking to its underbelly regularly, with a sturdy wooden stick so that our fingers wouldn't be put at risk by the blades.)

*Wikisource: "To a Mouse"
**Wikipedia: "To a Mouse"

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