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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Number 142: Robert Burns "To A Mouse"

To A Mouse
On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough, November, 1781
      Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
      Oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!
      Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
      Wi' bickering brattle!
      I would 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!

      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,
      And never miss't!

      Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
      Its silly wa's the win's are strewin!
      An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
      O' foggage green!
      An' bleak December's winds 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 mony a weary nibble!
      Now thou's turn'd 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 a-gley,
      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'e,
      On prospects drear!
      An' forward, tho' I cannot see,
      I guess an' fear!
-- Robert Burns

Hap Notes: First off- don't let the Scottish brogue throw you. Read out loud with a grand flourish and roll your "r's"- it's fun and you'll enjoy the words more. Barring that, just think of Ewen McGregor or Sean Connery or Robbie Coltran or Billy Connolly reading it aloud (all Scots.)

Robert Burns (1759-1796) was born to tenant farmer parents, the oldest of 7 children, and by the time he was 15 he was a seasoned hand at farm work. He was educated by his father in the three "R's" and was a voracious reader. He had a bit of schooling where he was taught a bit of Latin and French but he always retained a working man's view of life and the dignity that goes with one who works hard and thinks deeply. He wrote his first poetry to a girl (naturally) in 1774.

He got into a bit of trouble with women; he was a handsome devil and bit wild. He also got into trouble by supporting the principles of the French Revolution. His output of poetry, and his fame are remarkable considering that he died when he was only 37 (from dental surgery- although he had, ironically, a "weak" heart.) He was prone to periods of feverish work and deep depression (you know what's coming, right?) and is thought to have been a manic-depressive (which gets played down a bit in Scotland.)

Sir Walter Scott said, upon meeting him, that he'd never seen a man with eyes more vivid, glowing and passionate when speaking. He also said, "His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents."

You might think you don't know Burns even though you hear a song he wrote the lyric to every New Year's Eve, "Auld Lang Syne," you know..."May old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind...." The phrase "Of Mice and Men" in today's poem, was taken by Steinbeck for his book of the same title.

I have to admit I love Burns' poetry and it's a satisfying, romantic and gorgeously textured read. I'm not the only one, either, he's a national hero to this very day in Scotland. I'll wager there's not a person who can read in Scotland that doesn't have a Burns poem committed to memory.

Let's get to the poem. The poet has turned up a mouse with a plow, a mouse who the poet surmises had planned to live in a warm little nest throughout the winter and whose plans are now upended by the interfering plow. I don't like this much but it may help to have the "Standard English" translation. It kicks the stuffing out of the beauty of the rhythms and the gorgeous words but here it is:

Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast,
O, what a panic is in your little breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With argumentative chatter!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!

I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor little beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.

Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December's winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!

You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.

That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
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,
I guess and fear!

Here's a good Burns quote: "My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chose my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed - which is generally the most difficult part of the business - I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my, pen goes."

and another:
“Let us do or die.” (Just adding it to show that Burns is in the vernacular i.e. "man's inhumanity to man" and perhaps you know the song "Flow Gently Sweet Afton" ( the song "Comin' Through the Rye" ( I don't know who the guy is who's singing "Comin' Through the Rye" but he was the ONLY one I found of the dozens I heard (my brain is pickled from them) who had the spirit of the song.

You can find more Burns here:

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