AAABAB Rhyme Scheme, with Variable Iambs and Catalexis
Say what now? The form and meter (a.k.a. the rhythm) of "To a Mouse" is a bit wacky, but never fear: Shmoop is here to explain the difficult terms.
We'll start with the rhyme scheme, which is more straightforward: it's AAABAB, but it's not always exact. (Each letter stands for the same end rhyming sound, so in this case lines 1, 2, 3, and 5 would rhyme, and lines 4 and 6 would rhyme.) Check it out—we'll highlight the rhyming words so that you see what we mean:
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee
Wi' murd'ring pattle! (1-6)
See? "Beastie" rhymes with "breastie," "hasty," and "chase thee"; and "brattle" rhymes with "pattle." The unusual thing here is that Burns uses rhyming words of more than one syllable—this is called a feminine rhyme. In English language poetry, feminine rhymes are most often used for comic effect, like in the "patter songs" in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, or in rap songs. Burns' use of feminine rhymes adds to the sing-song effect of the poem, and it also highlights the sort of absurd, comic side of the poem—he's addressing himself to a rodent. But the comic side is counterbalanced by the darker, more tragic elements of the poem: the mouse—like all poor people—is facing a long, harsh, cold winter, and might not survive. Does the comic sound of the feminine rhymes undercut the tragedy? Or does the contrast highlight the real, everyday tragedy being described? What do you think, Shmoopers?
The rhyme scheme brings up some big questions. Let's take a look at the meter, or rhythm, of the words. The poem is written mostly in iambs. You'll notice that some of the lines are longer than others—lines 4 and 6 of each stanza are written in iambic dimeter, while the other lines are written in iambic tetrameter. Don't worry, we'll translate that into plain English for you:
An iamb is just a two-syllable pattern—an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable: da-DUM. (If you want to hear an iamb in action, just say "allow" out loud.) So "iambic tetrameter" means that there are four ("tetra") of these iambs per line. Check it out in the second stanza—we'll highlight the syllables that you'd naturally emphasize while reading it out loud:
I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle, (7-10)
See? There are four of those da-DUM units per line in the first three lines—iambic tetrameter. The fourth line has only two of those units—that's iambic dimeter.
But wait. There's also an extra, unstressed syllable at the end of each line—what's that about? That, Shmoopers, is a catalexis, or the absence of an expected syllable in a poetic line. Why the extra syllable? Why does Burns leave us hanging like that? Again, the catalexis adds to the sing-song effect of the poem—it creates a gentle rocking effect. You could also interpret that extra syllable as Burns' hint to the reader that there's more here that is being left unsaid. Hmm… what might that be, exactly?