To a Mouse

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To A Mouse
by Robert Burns
Rhyme schemeAAABAB
Publication dateNovember, 1785

"To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785"[1][2] is a Scots-language poem written by Robert Burns in 1785. It was included in the Kilmarnock volume[3] and all of the poet's later editions, such as the Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Edinburgh Edition). According to legend, Burns was ploughing in the fields at his Mossgiel Farm and accidentally destroyed a mouse's nest, which it needed to survive the winter. In fact, Burns's brother, Gilbert, claimed that the poet composed the poem while still holding his plough.[4]

The poem[edit]

Side by side comparison
The original Scots English translation

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a pannic'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, whiles, 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 winds 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.

Thy wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee mony 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!

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 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![5]

Little, sleek, cowering, timorous beast,
Oh, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With bickering prattle!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering paddle!

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, that you may thieve;
What then? Poor 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 green foliage!
And bleak December's winds ensuing,
Both bitter and piercing!

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

That small 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 Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry,
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! [citation needed]

In other media[edit]

John Steinbeck took the title of his 1937 novel Of Mice and Men from a line contained in the penultimate stanza. The 1997 novel The Best Laid Plans by Sidney Sheldon also draws its title from this line, and so do the novel of the same name by Canadian author Terry Fallis and the film series based on it.

The first stanza of the poem is read by Ian Anderson in the beginning of the 2007 remaster of "One Brown Mouse" by Jethro Tull. Anderson adds the line "But a mouse is a mouse, for all that" at the end of the stanza, which is a reference to another of Burns's songs, "Is There for Honest Poverty", commonly known as "A Man's a Man for A' That".

Sharon Olds's poem "Sleekit Cowrin'" also references this poem.

In Douglas Adams's Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, mice are hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings who are trying to find the Question to the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything. When their plans fail they lament that "the best laid plans of mice" don't always work out.

The Monty Python sketch 'Word Association' references the first line of the poem, and replaces the simple word "We" with "Wee sleekit cowerin' timorous beastie".[6]

In book 2, chapters 9, 11, and 13 of The Once and Future King by T. H. White, several allusions to the poem are made. The most notable is on p. 291, where a drawbridge man says to the fleeing Sirs Grummore and Palomides,[7] "Wee sleekit, cow'ring timorous Beastie... Oh, what panic's in thy breastie!"

The first line of the poem is frequently used by P. G. Wodehouse in his Jeeves stories and novels. Typically, a woman who has broken off her engagement uses it to describe her former lover, who has been ejected due to his cowardice. An example from The Cat-Nappers, Chapter 16[8] (Orlo Porter speaking): "Potty little lovers' quarrel my left eyeball. She called me a lily-livered poltroon. And a sleekit timorous cowering beastie."

The poem was alluded to in Ben Rector's song Living My Best Life.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Burns, Robert. "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785".
  2. ^ Burns, Robert. "To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785"..
  3. ^ Burns, Robert (1786). Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect. Kilmarnock: John Wilson. p. 138. Retrieved 13 February 2014.
  4. ^ Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2012). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton. Print.
  5. ^ Burns Country Includes annotations
  6. ^ "Monty Python: Word Association".
  7. ^ Pastoureau, Michel (2009). L'Art de l'héraldique au Moyen Âge. Paris: éditions du Seuil. ISBN 978-2-02-098984-8.
  8. ^ Wodehouse (1974). The Cat-Nappers. Simon and Schuster.

External links[edit]

  • McGown, George William Thompson. A Primer of Burns, Paisley : A. Gardner, 1907. Fully annotated version of To a Mouse, with historical background. pp. 9–20
  • Text of the poem can be found at 76. To a Mouse