To a Mouse
A Poem by Robert Burns
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
Revised in 2011...©
Type of Work
.......Robert Burns wrote "To a Mouse" as a vernacular poem that tells a little story in an English dialect called Scots. It contains eight stanzas, each with six lines.
......."To a Mouse" was written in 1785 and published in Kilmarnock, Scotland, on July 31, 1786, as part of a collection of Burns's poems entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
.......After a farmer plows up a mouse's nest, he apologizes to the tiny creature while assuring it that he means no harm. He also says he does not mind that the mouse occasionally steals an ear of corn. After all, the farmer reaps a bounty of food from the land; surely, he cannot begrudge the mouse a tiny harvest of its
own. Finally, he tells the mouse that it is not alone in failing to build wisely for the future; men fail at that too.
Respect Earth and Its Creatures
.......In "To a Mouse," Robert Burns develops the theme of respect for nature's creatures, especially the small, the defenseless, the downtrodden (or, in this case, the uprooted). As a wee creature, the mouse represents not only lowly animals but also lowly human beingscommon folk who are often tyrannized by the high
and the mighty.
Foolproof Plans Can Go Awry
.......In the seventh stanza (Lines 27-42), Burns observes that "the best-laid schemes o mice an men" often go wrong. This theme can apply not only to the mouse's construction of a nest but also to a human being's construction of a political system or a war plan. Napoleon learned this lesson at
.......In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the second, third, and fifth, and the fourth line rhymes with the sixth. Thus, the rhyme scheme is aaabab. The types of end rhyme used include masculine rhyme, as in thrave and lave (Lines 15 and 17); feminine rhyme, as in stibble and nibble
(Lines 31 and 32); and near rhyme, as in thieve and live (Lines 13 and 14).
.......The meter varies. Most of the lines are as follows:1...Iambic pentameter with catalexis (an incomplete final foot), as in the first two lines of the poem:.........1.................2............3.................4..............5
Wee SLEEK|it COW|rin TIM|rous BEAST|ie
O WHAT..|..a PAN..|..ic's IN..|..thy BREAST..|..ie
2...Iambic tetrameter, as in lines 13 and 14:
What THEN?..|..poor BEAST..|..tie THOU..|..maun LIVE
3...Iambic trimeter with catalexis, as in line 12:
4...Iambic dimeter, as in line 46:
On PRO|spects DREAR
Use of Diminutives
.......Notice that Burns uses diminutives such as beastie and Mousie to suggest smallness and to endear the mouse to the reader. Webster's New World Dictionary & Thesaurus (Accent Software International, Macmillan Publishers, Version 2.0, 1998) defines diminutive as "a word or
name formed from another by the addition of a suffix expressing smallness in size, or sometimes, endearment or condescension, as ringlet (ring + -let), Jackie (Jack + -ie), lambkin (lamb + -kin)."
.......The time is the late eighteenth century. The place is a farm in Scotland. Burns, a farmer, was plowing a field when he uprooted the nest of a mouse. Later, he wrote "To a Mouse" to apologize to the "wee beastie" for evicting it from its home.
The Narrator: The poet Burns, a farmer, who uproots a mouse's nest while plowing a field.
The Mouse: A wee creature that scurries off in fear of the human invader.
Glossary of Words From the Poem
To a Mouse
Beastie: Tiny animal.
Bickering: Moving while making little noises.
Brattle: Succession of noises.
Cell: Nest, dwelling.
Coulter: Plowshare (blade of a plow).
Cow'rin: Cowering (crouching from fear;
Cranreuch: Hoarfrost (dew on grass and plants that freezes).
Daimen: Occasional, infrequent.
Ensuin': Ensuing (following).
Foggage: Densely growing grass; wildly growing grass.
Laith: Loath (reluctant, unwilling).
Lave: What is left; what remains.
No thy lane: Not
Och: Interjection expressing regret, exasperation, disapproval, or disgust.
Pattle: Long-handled spade to remove earth from
the blade of a plow.
Silly: Weak, fragile, feeble.
Sleekit: (1) Sleek, smooth, shiny; (2) sly, sneaky.
Snell: Harsh, bitter, severe.
Thole: Endure, sustain.
Thrave: Twenty-four sheaves of grain. A sheaf is a bundle of cut grain stalks.
Tim'rous: Timorous (fearful).
Wee: Tiny, little.
Whiles: Sometimes, at times.
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plow
By Robert Burns
Written in 1785 and Published in 1786
Text of the Poem
Poem in Modern English
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, timrous beastie, O, what a panics in thy breastie! Thou need na start awa sae
hasty, Wi bickering brattle! I wad
be laith to rin an chase thee, 5 Wi murdring pattle!
Im truly sorry mans dominion,
Has broken natures social union,
An justifies that ill
Which makes thee startle 10
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a
S a sma request;
Ill get a blessin wi the lave,
Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
Its silly was the wins are strewin! 20
An naething, now, to big a new ane,
O foggage green!
An bleak Decembers winds ensuin,
Baith snell an
Thou saw the fields laid bare an waste, 25
An weary winter comin fast,
An cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro thy
That wee bit heap o leaves an stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thous turnd out, for
a thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winters sleety dribble, 35
An cranreuch cauld!
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o mice an
Gang aft agley, 40
An leae us nought but grief an pain,
For promisd joy!
Still thou art blest, compard wi me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my
On prospects drear!
An forward, tho I canna see,
I guess an fear!
Tiny, sleek, cowering, fearful mouse, O, what a panic is in your breast! You need not start away
so hasty, With pattering noises! I would be loath to run and chase you, With my murdering spade!
I'm truly sorry that my world,
Has broken into your world,
And justifies your ill opinion of men,
Which makes you startle
At me, you poor, earth-born companion,
And fellow mortal!
I doubt not that at times you may steal;
What then? poor little animal, you must live!
An occasional ear of corn
out of twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I'll be blest with the rest of the corn,
And never miss the ear you took!
Your tiny house, too, in ruin!
Its fragile walls the winds are strewing!
And nothing, now, to build a new
Out of densely growing grass!
And bleak December's winds are following,
Both harsh and keen!
You saw the fields were bare and desolate,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the
You thought to dwell
Till crash! the cruel plowshare passed
Right through your cell.
That little heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your
Of house and home,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoarfrost cold!
But, Mousie, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes of mice and
Go often astray,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blest, compared with me
The present only touches you:
But, Oh! I backward cast my eye.
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
guess and fear!
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- Write an essay that explains the serious messages in this poem.
- Why does this poem remain fresh and relevant for modern readers?
- Discuss schemes of businessmen and politicians that "gang aft agley."
- The subtitle of the poem refers to the mouse as a female. Would the poem have less impact if it were about a male?
- English varies from country to country and from region to region (or from social class to social class) within a country. For example, Americans refer to the luggage compartment of a car as a trunk, and Englishmen refer to it as a boot. Here are other examples: truck (U.S.), lorry (England); while (U.S.), whilst
(England); elevator (U.S.), lift (England); corn (U.S.), maize (England). In England, members of the working class often drop the h sound at the beginning of words such as hat or had. "To a Mouse" is written in an.English-language dialect called Scots. As is readily apparent in the poem, this Scottish dialect contains
many words not used in standard English. Write an informative essay about the peculiarities of the English spoken where you live. You might note, for example, that people in your area refer to the dressing ladled on mashed potatoes as sauce but that others refer to it as gravy. Or, you might point out that you use the word pop to refer to what others call soda or soft drink or that you use
the term lightning bug to refer to a.firefly or glowworm.
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