“To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough”

by Robert Burns (1785)

Burns’ Original Standard English translation
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, 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’ murd’ring pattle!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
An’ fellow mortal!

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.

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 win’s ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

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.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ 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.

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!

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 canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

 

Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast,
Oh, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With your hurrying scamper
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.I’m truly sorry man’s dominion

Has broken Nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes you startle
At me, your poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!

I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor little beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.

Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December’s winds coming,
Both bitter and piercing!

You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.

That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

 

 

11 thoughts on ““To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough”

  1. I am one who always benefited from having poetry explained to me. One cannot be a CPA and comprehend artistic language. It’s like asking a house painter to do a portrait. But it was fun reading the original and the translation side by side.

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  2. A poem’s message is often “baked into” the allegory — best understood through the “meaning” of the whole story. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory

    Here, our English language is not helpful. The best example I know of comes from our friend, Clint. “Nothing this author can think of could possibly be more difficult than that of attempting to translate the Greek language into dog-Latin English. For how does one speak to a literalist from a poets perspective? How can romance be translated into cold, hard facts? How can the feeling of expressing love and feeling through words be compared to the frustration of using such a mongrel thief of a language as English? How can an allegory, a metaphor, a parable, or any moral story be clearly expressed in proper English?” STRAWMAN — The Real Story Of Your Artificial Person (Volume I), A private work by: clint > richardson, p. 281

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  3. I always thought that SNELL (as in ‘Baith snell an’ keen!’) meant fast, quick, rapido, like the Afrikaans word Snell or the German Schnell.
    I ‘d wager most folks will have heard of his ‘(My Love is Like) A Red, Red Rose’, even if they don’t know who wrote it, so in keeping with that, I’ll bid ye fare thee well a while!

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  4. Snell does mean quick, however, in the context of the poem, even according to the link you have so kindly provided above (See: #4 “Of weather…”), might you agree that the most appropriate definition/translation intended by the poet? Or, are you arguing that the translation is incorrect?

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    1. No argument, but being a poet, Rabbie Burns, belike, meant it both ways. Poets and writers oft use double meanings, call it artistic licence or whatever. Poets especially like their prose to scan, or used to in his day. Ambiguity is ofter their watchword.
      (My own book of Burns has fast as the translation of snell.)

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  5. Well, once again I have demonstrated, to myself at least, that it is no easy task to overcome the difficulties all artists and poets face attempting to convey a moral story (parable, etc.) to “literalists,” who’s sheer numbers and confidence in that singular approach to viewing/experiencing life completely overwhelm the story’s entire raison d’etre.

    As a maker of 3d and 2d abstract art, and lover of poetry, I admit here and now the utter failure of this exercise.

    However, I am not easily dissuaded, and vow dear readers to return again with another story to tell in its whole meaning — with love and feeling for anyone who cares for that kind of stuff. Until next time, ciao.

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