To a Mouse
Everyone loves a rebel, right? That must be why readers across the world are over the moon for Robbie Burns, the national poet of Scotland.
What made this guy such a rebel, you ask? Well, for starters, Burns practically launched the British Romantic movement. In addition, he was pretty continually in trouble with the National Church of Scotland for dilly-dallying with the ladies (Burns was a good-looking guy and had rather a lot of illegitimate children with rather a lot of different women… something that was seriously frowned upon by the moral codes of the time). And to top it all off, Burns wasn't even a member of the elite, wealthy crowd of Edinburgh or Glasgow—he was the son of a "cotter," or a farmer, in the Scottish countryside. He spent practically his whole life flouting expectations.
You're probably still scratching your head about our claim that Burns launched British Romanticism. Wait, you're probably saying. Didn't William Wordsworth do that? Well, Shmoopers, our man Burns was doing the whole Romantic thing while Billy Wordsworth was still doing his college-boy tour of pre-Revolution France. That's right: he published his wildly popular, seriously influential Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (which included "To a Mouse") in 1786, a good twelve years before Wordsworth published his Lyrical Ballads.
You might also be scratching your head about what we really mean by "British Romanticism," anyway. Well, British Romanticism was a literary, political, and cultural movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that was, in part, a reaction against the more formal literature of the neo-classical period of the earlier 1700s. While those neo-classicists like Alexander Pope tended to use formal poetic diction to describe the behavior of the wealthy elite, Romantics like Burns liked to use the everyday language used by common people to describe everyday problems and activities.
That's the case in this poem, "To a Mouse." Burns writes it in the Scots dialect (which, believe it or not, is still spoken in Scotland today, although most folks will switch to standard English when chatting with non-Scots-speakers). So yep, it's written in the common language of everyday people. It's also written about a mouse that gets turned out of its nest when the speaker accidentally plows over it. Aw, poor mouse. That's the second criterion for Romantic poetry: common, everyday subject matter. See, Burns was a Romantic before Wordsworth made it all mainstream.
"To a Mouse" is one of Burns' most famous poems of all time, and that's saying something. Ever heard of a book called Of Mice and Men? The title is taken from a line of this poem. The poem, like Steinbeck's novel, is about how all of your plans can just go up in smoke in the blink of an eye. Or, if you're a mouse, in the turn of a plow.
Now, go ahead and read the poem—or, better yet, go listen to one of the clips in the "links" section of a Scottish person reading the poem out loud so that you get a sense of what the Scots dialect really sounds like. Don't worry, we'll wait right here.
Why Should I Care?
"To a Mouse" is written in an unfamiliar dialect about a frightened mouse, of all things. Couldn't possibly have anything to do with you, right? Think again, Shmoopers. This poem has everything to do with your everyday life. Have you ever made careful plans that went absolutely and completely wrong? Yeah, us too.
Ever studied really hard for a test, only to discover on the morning of that you studied the wrong chapters? Or do all your research and find the perfect college… and not get admitted? Or work up your courage to ask out that hot kid from your history class… and get turned down flat? Well, as Robbie Burns said, "The best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry." In other words, whether you're a mouse trying to build a nest against the winter cold or a high school student trying to find a date to prom, your best-laid schemes might go all to heck in a handbasket.
Robert Burns might have been a successful poet and ladies' man, but he still knew all about rejection, failure, and disappointment. So give "To a Mouse" a try—it just might offer a few tips on how to take that disappointment in stride, pick up the pieces, and move on.