Tonight Scots around the world will celebrate the poet Robert Burns (1759–1796). They’ll eat haggis and drink whiskey; recite poems and make speeches. Just over three weeks ago, renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” were sung to bring in the New Year. “For auld lang syne . . . We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.” Arm-in-arm, cheery celebrants probably asked one another, “What does it mean?”
Despite the notorious difficulty of the Scots dialect, the poetry of Robert Burns enjoys a global legacy. In the U.S., there are more statues of Burns than there are of any American poet. Abraham Lincoln could recite most of Burns’s work from memory. The naturalist John Muir, who later founded the Sierra Club, carried a book of Burns poems and counted it among his most treasured possessions. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: “He [Burns] has made that Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man.”
Americans will no doubt be familiar with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. To understand the genius of Burns’ appeal, one need look no further than the poem that inspired this great title: “To a Mouse,” or, “To a Mouse: on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785.” If you want to read the full poem — it’s here.
According to tradition, it based on a real-life encounter when, out in the fields, Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest. Consider the opening line, “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie.” From the outset, we have everything we need to understand the mouse. However, it is more than just five-word portrait. This perfectly captures the plowman’s relation to her. We already know, from the title, that the mouse is of the gentler sex. “Wee” an “tim’rous” are distinctly Scottish and full of tenderness. “Beastie” identifies the mouse as an adversary, but it does so in good humor. “Sleeket” has a double meaning – silky or sneaky – and either way invokes admiration. Then there’s the plowman’s implicit pity in “cowran”.
In typical Burns fashion, there’s a swift zooming-out in perspective in stanza two, where we are moved from the local to the universal. The plowman addresses the mouse as an equal: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union.” These lines, which justify Burns’ enduring appeal to ecologists and conservationists, like the aforementioned John Muir, relate to Romanticism’s much broader theme, the relation between Man and Nature.
But if this is profound, it is also unexpected. This rural encounter ought to be commonplace. Endearing, perhaps – but it’s hardly the stuff of tragedies. Yet the drama Burns affords it is a testament to his multi-dimensional voice. Burns’ biographer, Robert Crawford, describes it as his “performative impulse” whereby the “innate drama of his life” informs the “reach of his poetry.”
And so there is an undeniable undercurrent of humanitarian warmth as we learn how the plowman is affected by — and complicit in — the mouse’s distress: “At me, thy poor, earth-born companion, / An’ fellow mortal!” Here Burns is also beginning to gather momentum for the poem’s famous denouement.
Then suddenly, Burns flips the guilt back on the mouse and plays to our original expectations. She’s a thief! But then again, who could blame her? “Poor beastie, thou maun live!” Hers is a crime of necessity, of survival. Meanwhile, the plow’s clumsy destruction has caused her “wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!” So the little mouse will have to face “bleak December’s winds ensuing” without any “cozie” shelter. What is surprising is that the cause of her unprecedented woe is not the plowman, but a cruel and inexorable fate, “Till crash! The cruel coulter past,/Out thro’ thy cell.”
Once again, Burns uses the address to the mouse as an opportunity to make a grander claim; that all mortal creatures, mankind included, are victims to chance. He then pens the immortal words: “The best laid schemes o’Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft agley”. Which later inspired the title of a Steinbeck’s classic and the motif of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
In the final stanza, Burns’ teasing tone concludes in clarity. While the mouse and the plowman are united by “Nature’s social union”, they are also distinctive.
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
Ultimately, mankind has it worse. His consciousness renders the precariousness of life, and the reign of chance, tyrannical.
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear.