To a mouse

The Best Laid Schemes...

Best known as a talented and memorable poet, it may be surprising to find that Robert Burns earned the majority of his living through farming, though this was not atypical of the time period. This may explain why he was commonly known as the "Ploughman Bard" (Gibbons), and why he had such a passion for observing and writing about nature, one of the defining features of a romantic-era poet. It is therefore reasonable to assume that his poem, "To a Mouse: On turning her up in her nest, with the plough, November, 1785" was written as the result of an incident Burns had while ploughing his fields. I feel that the poem, likely the result of Burns' hindsight and contemplation, reveals a greater truth about humanity. Because of this, I find the poem is very enjoyable, and that the themes contained within are still very powerful and relevant even today. Namely, the themes of having respect for those less powerful than us, as well as the idea that even our best laid plans can go awry because of forces beyond our control.

In the very first line, Burns begins establishing a major theme of the poem - the respect we should have for those less powerful than us. Burns describes the mouse as being a "Wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie," who has such "panic's in thy breastie," (Burns) immediately instilling feelings of sympathy and pity for the tiny rodent. By speaking with words like "beastie", "breastie" and "Mousie" (Burns), the author applies the suffix '-ie' to transform the image of the mouse from a pest to a pet, and a friendly and cute one at that, much the same way people add the suffix '-ie' and 'y' to loveable animals like 'doggie' or 'kitty'. By doing this, Burns effectively allows the reader to see the equality that should be present even among those who are not considered to be as beautiful or lovable. This tactic is used to inspire further sympathy in the reader, and has them reconsider their preconceived notions about the downtrodden people in everyday society. The mouse is essentially used as a parallel to point out less fortunate humans who, in this time period, were defenceless to those in positions of power or wealth because of social structure and the class system. Being a farmer, Robert Burns may be venting his own feelings by speaking about the helplessness of the mouse, and his frustration about it being treated this way. Take for instance Stanza 2: "I'm truly sorry man's dominion / Has broken nature's social union / An' justifies that ill opinion / Which mak's thee startle / At me, thy poor, earth-born companion / An' fellow-mortal!" (Burns). In these lines the narrator apologizes for "man's" lack of empathy and exertion of power over creatures they perceive as less than themselves, and goes on to say that the mouse and him are really equals; fellow mortals. This is elaborated on when Burns writes "...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!" (Burns). The narrator now sees eye to eye with the mouse, saying it is not a problem for the mouse to steal an icker (an ear of corn) from his fields because the mouse is only trying to survive the same way a human does, therefore implying mice and men, lower class and higher class, are not so far apart and thus should not be treated as though they are.

Another key theme brought up, again relevant to the time period and today, is the way one's best laid plans can be brought down by forces beyond their control. In Stanza 7, Burns points out that "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men" often go wrong" (Burns). This line not only speaks about the mouse's construction of a nest which is destroyed accidentally by the narrator at the onset of winter, but man's construction of life goals and hopes and the way they can be accidentally laid waste. Burns, wanting to write poetry, may have felt that the industrial revolution, which began to take over agrarian culture, was very destructive to farmers and peasants everywhere, including himself. This conclusion can be drawn from the Romantic period and style that Burns writes in. In this time of social class and hierarchy there was very slim chance of moving up on the social ladder, which in turn leads to inequality, as pointed out in the first discussed theme. To surmise, just as the mouse had his home destroyed, Burns plans for the future have been equally destroyed by forces beyond his control.

The overall connotation of this poem, the message Burns wants to pass along is that even when something is done with pure intentions and no meaning of harm, somebody else's well laid plans can be destroyed, and inequality exists because of this unfortunate truth. Burns sums up his feelings with the final stanza, saying "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!" (Burns). Here, the narrator tells the reader that even though he and the mouse are in a similar situation, the mouse is blessed because of its ignorance; it cannot be held back as the narrator is because of events that have happened in the past. The mouse, unlike the narrator, can actually enjoy the present because it does not worry about what the future might bring.

Works Cited

  • Gibbons, Joyce. "TO A MOUSE ." Ready To Go eBooks. Web. 25 Nov 2009. <>.

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