Sunday Pages: "To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough"
A poem by Robert Burns
I don’t know if it’s residue from the lunar eclipse that Neil deGrasse Tyson said was lame, a particularly virulent Mercury Retrograde, or, to paraphrase Sullivan, the agency of an ill-natured fairy, but every single plan I made this past week was either canceled, postponed, or rescheduled.
Some of these plans were thwarted by friends and family catching covid (which seems to once again be on the rise, despite our collective denial). Others were driven off by lighting and thunder and possible tornado in the forecast. Since last Saturday, it’s been like this with all my best-laid plans.
And now that I think of it, “the best-laid plans of mice and men” is one of those lines that my mother used to quote just the first part of. When I was a kid, she would frequently say, “‘I see,’ said the blind man,” and definitively end the sentence right there, and I would sort of play along as if this made sense. I think I was a senior in high school when she finally supplied the punchline: “…as he took out his hammer and saw.”
Another expression where you only ever get the first part is this: “You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out.” This is supposed to be a profound nugget of baseball wisdom, but all the beginning of Satchel Paige’s famous aphorism does is list the three possible outcomes. It’s the oft-ignored second part that gives meaning to the first: “…but you have to dress for all of them.”
Why do some expressions get truncated like this? In the case of the “mice and men” line, it’s because the second part is written in the Scots dialect: “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley.” Aft means often, and gang agley means go wrong. I suggest translating it thus:
The best-laid plans of mice and men,
Get all fucked up again and again.
“To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” was written in November, 1785—three and a half years before George Washington’s first inauguration. Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland, and his fusion of the Scots dialect with standard English makes his work accessible to non-Scots speakers. “To a Mouse” is an example of this—although it did require me to look up a few words. As the poem is difficult, I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing each verse:
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, 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’ murdering pattle!
Chill, sleek little rodent! I’m not going to chase you.
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
It sucks the plough destroyed your house. As a fellow mammal and mortal, I sympathize.
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ requet;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!
All you took is one ear (icker) of corn in this whole pile (thrave). That’s cool with me, little dude. Not a lot to ask for.
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 win’s ensuing,
Baith snell an’ keen!
Shit, your house is toast, and December is coming, and it’s cold! Major bummer.
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.
You were nice and warm until the coulter came and chopped up your lodging. (A coulter is a round cutting blade, but the horror aspects of the poem are enhanced if you imagine Ann.)
That wee bit heap o’ leaves and stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!
There’s so much bad weather on the way, including cranreuch, which means hoarfrost. (I don’t know what hoarfrost is, either, but it sounds unpleasant.)
And now, the famous part:
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!
Mouse, my friend, you can’t blame yourself for having terrible foresight. You’re a mouse! You have a small brain! We humans have big brains, and the ability to plan ahead, and we still fuck shit up all the time! We hope things will turn out great, and they usually don’t! We are no better than you! If anything, we are worse!
Still thou are 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!
Consider yourself fortunate, mouse, that you can’t look back with rue and regret, or look ahead to fear and dread! You live completely in the moment, you lucky rodent!
These are fearsome times, Dear Reader, and we are all of us terrified mice scurrying off to safety, with dreadful panic in our breast. But unlike the wee beastie, we can see the coulter coming.
May this week bring us all better health, fewer thwarted plans, and more order to things—and let us finish what we start!
Photo credit: SummonedByFells. Statue of Burns at Kilmarnock.
I so needed this today. Thank you!
Great explanation of this poem! Let us pray that the scotus plan to take us back 50 years is ruined just like the sleek little rodent’s home! Poor thing.