Alexander McCall Smith on Robert Burns

  25 Jan '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Robert Burns was the author of a famous poem about dogs: ‘The Twa Dogs’. That was anthropomorphic, of course, as it consisted in a dialogue between two tykes, Caesar and Luath. There is no such anthropomorphism in Burns’ famous mouse poem, one of the most moving and lyrical of his works. This poem is usually referred to as ‘To a Mouse’, although the full title appends to that – ‘On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785’. This poem has the distinction of containing two lines that have passed into popular aphorism, often quoted when things go wrong. These words say everything that needs to be said about human failure and its inevitability: ‘The best laid schemes of Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley’. These lines are to hand whenever we contemplate the frustration of our carefully planned projects, ranging from the major – the explosion of an expensive rocket on the launch pad – to the minor – the collapse of a souffle in the kitchen. They have a calming, almost fatalistic effect. Do not fret, for these things happen. I told you so. Do not be too confident that things will work out as you want them to work out. Do not get above yourself. And perhaps most importantly, do not be too quick to blame others when things go wrong.

But there is so much more to the poem. There is the pitiful image of the tiny mouse disturbed by the terrifying plough. Who amongst us has not seen a mouse scurrying away, cowered, when we surprise it in the pantry or the kitchen? How large we are; how small it is. How neat and perfect its form against the threatening human giant. And if we sense this and feel sorry that we and the mouse are on different sides of a battle, then there may come to mind perhaps the most arresting lines in the entire poem: ‘I’m truly sorry Man’s Dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union’. These lines sometimes occur to me when i inadvertently step on a small scurrying insect, and even when that sort of thing happens deliberately: we are quite large creatures, and inevitably we crush smaller beings living their lives at ground level. Recently, camping in the Snowy Mountains of Australia, I had to visit, as all must do, the outside privy in a remote campsite. In Australia such out-buildings are all called the ‘dunny’, and there are all sorts of stories about the wildlife that may be encountered in a rural dunny. They are the haunt of brown snakes and redback spiders, both of which can do a great deal of damage to any human they encounter. Dunny stories are calculated to put you off paying a necessary visit, and yet eventually courage must be built up for the test. In my case, I discovered the dunny populated by fairly large biting ants – if not a small army of them, then at lest a platoon. as I brushed them off the seat, sending them into some frightful deep hole beneath, those lines of Burns occurred to me; indeed we can be sorry for the things we have to do as much as for the things we do by mistake.

At the end of this poem, of course, Burns makes an observation about the cost of awareness. As humans we can reflect on our past and imagine our future – both of which activities may involve discomfort, even dread. A mouse cannot do that and is, perhaps, more blessed that we are for that very reason.

Taken from A Gathering: A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems edited by Alexander McCall Smith

To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785

Wee, sleekit, cowran, 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!

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 winds ensuin,

Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ wast,

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 turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,

But house or hald,

To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,

An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are 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 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!

Robert Burns

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