Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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
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.
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
"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 beings–common folk who are often tyrannized by the
high and the mighty.
Foolproof Plans Can Go
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 Waterloo.
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).
meter varies. Most of the lines are as follows:
pentameter with catalexis (an incomplete
final foot), as in the first two lines of the poem:
tetrameter, as in lines 13 and 14:
trimeter with catalexis, as in line 12:
dimeter, as in line 46:
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)."
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
To a Mouse
Beastie: Tiny animal.
while making little noises.
Cell: Nest, dwelling.
(blade of a plow).
(crouching from fear; trembling).
(dew on grass and plants that freezes).
growing grass; wildly growing grass.
Laith: Loath (reluctant,
Lave: What is left;
Miss't: Miss it.
No thy lane:
expressing regret, exasperation, disapproval, or disgust.
spade to remove earth from the blade of a plow.
Silly: Weak, fragile,
Sleekit: (1) Sleek,
smooth, shiny; (2) sly, sneaky.
Snell: Harsh, bitter,
Thole: Endure, sustain.
Thou's: You are.
sheaves of grain. A sheaf is a bundle of cut grain stalks.
Wee: Tiny, little.
On Turning Her Up in
Her Nest With the Plow
By Robert Burns
Written in 1785 and Published in
|Text of the Poem
||Poem in Modern English
|Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous
O, what a panic’s in thy
Thou need na start awa sae
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’
chase thee, 5
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born
I doubt na, whiles, but thou
What then? poor beastie,
thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
’S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the
An’ never miss’t!
Thy wee bit housie, too,
It’s silly wa’s the win’s
are strewin! 20
An’ naething, now, to big
a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds
Baith snell an’ keen!
Thou saw the fields laid
bare an’ waste, 25
An’ weary winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath
Thou thought to dwell—
Till crash! the cruel coulter
Out thro’ thy cell. 30
That wee bit heap o’ leaves
Has cost thee mony a weary
Now thou’s turn’d out, for
a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety
An’ cranreuch cauld!
But, Mousie, thou art no
In proving foresight may
The best-laid schemes o’
mice an’ men
Gang aft agley, 40
An’ lea’e us nought but
grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d
The present only toucheth
But, Och! I backward cast
my e’e. 45
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna
I guess an’ fear!
sleek, cowering, fearful mouse,
O, what a panic is in your
You need not start away
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
Which makes you startle
At me, you poor, earth-born
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
Your tiny house, too, in
Its fragile walls the winds
And nothing, now, to build
a new one,
Out of densely growing grass!
And bleak December's winds
Both harsh and keen!
You saw the fields were bare
And weary winter coming
And cozy here, beneath the
You thought to dwell—
Till crash! the cruel plowshare
Right through your cell.
That little heap of leaves
Has cost you many a weary
Now you are turned out,
for all your trouble,
Of house and home,
To endure the winter's sleety
And hoarfrost cold!
But, Mousie, you are not
In proving foresight may
The best-laid schemes of
mice and men
Go often astray,
And leave us nothing but
grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blest, compared
The present only touches
But, Oh! I backward cast
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot
I guess and fear!
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
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.