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Burns’ To A Mouse: The poem we love but few understand

A mouse

(Alamy)

Robert Burns’ To A Mouse is a poem loved by many – but few really understand it. On the anniversary of his birth, Fiona Macdonald examines its appeal.

Scottish poet Liz Lochhead is not one to idolise Robert Burns the man. “If he were alive today, he would be what we call a sex pest,” she says of her country’s most revered bard. During his short lifetime (he died at the age of 36), Burns fathered many illegitimate children with different women.

But Burns the poet moves her. Lochhead’s poem From a Mouse is a response to one of his most famous poems, the one that gave us the “tim'rous beastie” and “the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men.”

To a Mouse, published in 1786, contains some of the most memorable lines of poetry – and yet its deeper meaning risks being lost. Burns expert George Wilkie claims that the poem is “not really understood by the mass of English-speaking poetry lovers, for no other reason than that the dialect causes it to be read as though in a foreign language.” Readers miss “the sadness and despair contained within the lines of this poem,” he says.

Lochhead agrees. “The poem becomes more interesting to you as you grow older,” she says. “The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men/Gang aft agley,’ seems a cliche but later on, as you go through hard things yourself, you realise the deep truth of it again. His life was so difficult and heartbreaking – it hits you with its poignancy.”

Burns’ work of 1785 describes his feelings after disturbing a fieldmouse in its nest. His apology becomes a reflection on a life of struggle with little reward at the end.

Lochhead believes it’s the language as much as the meaning that makes Burns so revered. “The intimacy of the language thrills me. He’s not romantic about farming at all, instead talking about the winter’s ‘sleety dribble’, and the ‘cranreuch cauld’. I remember my teacher telling me what ‘cranreuch’ meant – it’s the word for a white hoar frost; I wouldn’t have known that otherwise, and now every time I see it I call it a ‘cranreuch cauld’. He gave me words I didn’t have.”

The power of his language comes across despite difficulties in understanding. “He’s popular around the world because of the strength of what he was saying allied to the words he used. He was a complete one-off and an original,” says Lochhead. Burns’ mouse is much more than a blank subject: “It’s about a tiny wee thing that’s so small and so alive – and so subversive.”

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