‘To a Mouse’ by Robert Burns is an eight stanza poem which is separated into sets of six lines, or sestets. The poem follows a unified pattern of rhyme that emphasizing the amusing nature of the narrative. The stanzas follow a pattern of AAABAB, and make use of multi-syllable words at the end of each line. This is known as a feminine rhyme and are reminiscent of nursery songs.
‘To a Mouse’ is almost entirely composed of iambs, or sets of two syllables in a pattern of iambic tetrameter, meaning that there are four iambs per line. At the end of each line the pattern changes. There is a final unstressed hanging syllable left over—known as a catalexis.
Summary of To a Mouse
‘To a Mouse’ by Robert Burns describes the unfortunate situation of a mouse whose home was destroyed by the winter winds.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he knows about the nature of the mouse. It is small and scared of the presence of humans. The speaker understands why this is the case and sympathizes. He goes on to describe the winds which destroyed the mouse’s laboured over home and how it is now without shelter for the winter.
In the final lines he relates the mouse’s predicament to that experienced by all of humankind. One’s plans are liable to go awry, no matter how hard one plans for the future.
Analysis of To a Mouse
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing the mouse about which the poem has been written. The adjectives used by the speaker are quite visual and multilayered in that they speak to the mouse’s physicality and emotional nature. It is “Wee,” or small, as well as “sleeket,” or sneaky, “cowran” and “tim-rous.” These final words refer to the mouse’s fearful disposition and desire to run and “panic” whenever anyone comes near.
The speaker exclaims over this fact. It is clear he is upset over the mouse’s fear and wishes that it did not have to feel the way it does. In the third line he tells the mouse that it does not have to fear him. It should not “start awa sae hasty,” or run away so quickly. This is the case as the speaker would never “rin an’ chase” the little “beastie.” He has no desire to chase after, and murder the mouse with a “pattle.” He is not like those the mouse has come to fear.
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,
In the second stanza the poet begins apologizing to the mouse for the nature of humankind. They have had “dominon” over the world and been unwilling to accept creatures which are not like them. Unfortunately the mouse is a very prominent figure on this list. In “Man’s” desire to control all parts of the world “he” has “broken Nature’s social union.” Humans are a disruption in the chains of nature, forcing creatures to act as they normally would not.
The speaker tells the mouse that it is fully “justi[fied]” in how it feels. Of course, he states, the mouse should have an “ill opinion” of man. Humans should “make thee startle.”
In the last lines the speaker mourns the state of the world and the lack of community between humans and non-human animals. He calls the mouse an “earth-born companion” and a “fellow-mortal.” They are one in the same, living at the same time on the same planet.
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!
In the third stanza the speaker addresses the way the mouse lives. In the first lines he tells the mouse he understands that “thou may thieve.” The fact that the mouse must steal food from humans does not bother the speaker. It is not the mouse’s fault that it has been degraded to this level. The mouse is only a “poor beastie” which “maun” or “must” live.
One of the food items which is stolen by the mouse is a “daimen-icker” or ear of corn. When one steals one “daimen-icker” from a “thrave” or bundle of twenty-four, it is only a “sma’” or “small” thing. He will give the mouse his “blessin” through the food it steals. The speaker will “never miss” that which goes missing.
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!
At the halfway point of this piece the speaker turns to address the “housie” in which the mouse lives. It is no grand structure, it is “in ruin!” The walls are weak, and are often “strewin” by the wind. Burns’ choice to emphasize the Scottish dialect is very evident in these lines. Particularly in the words “win’s” and “wa’s” which would not traditional be contracted.
Although the wind has blown down the walls of the mouse’s nest, or “housie,” it does not have the materials to make a new one. It is not the right time of year to find the “green” it needs. Unfortunately, it is going to be December soon, the “winds [are] ensuin” or “ensuing.”
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.
The speaker finally turns to the mouse’s current situation. He understands that the mouse tried to shelter in a “field” where it could “cozie…beneath the blast.” It was here it “thought to dwell but then, “crash!” The wind came through and destroyed the home it has built.
A reader should take note of the use of alliteration in this section. The poet makes use of the ‘C’ sound a number of times in the last two lines, this emphasizes the destruction wrought by the wind and its “cruel” nature.
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!
The sixth stanza elaborates on what the mouse’s old home was like. It may now be in ruins, but the speaker still wants to share what the tiny creature built. It was only a “wee-bit heap o’leaves an’ stibble,” or pieces of grass and hay. It was made from minimal materials but cost the mouse a lot.
All of the work has gone to waste as the wind has “turn’d” the mouse out of its home. It now has to face the “Winter’s sweetly dribble” and “cranreuch” or frost.
But Mousie, thou art 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!
In the second to last stanza the speaker wants the mouse to understand that it is not alone. Often one’s plans go awry, and “foresight” may often be in “vain” or pointless when one never knows whats going to happen. The following lines became quite well-known after this poem’s publication, especially after they were used for John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men.
The speaker states that “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley.” There is no real way to predict what the world will throw at you. The “you” to whom the speaker refers is humankind, non-human animals and all living things on the planet. It is universal that plans will fall apart.
Still, thou art blest, compar’d 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!
In the final stanza of this piece the speaker states that the mouse is “blest, compar’d wi’” him. It is only the “present” which hurts the mouse. The little “beastie” does not have to worry about the past or, really worry, about the future.
On the other hand the speaker is able to “backward cast” his “e’e.” His prospects appear “dear,” when basing them on what has happened to him previously. Then when he looks forward in time he “canna see” or cannot see, the “fears” which may come for him. A very dark and foreboding prospect.