Robert Burns and that Mouse

This is not an analysis of the poem, but a sharing of some thoughts to which it has given rise. It begins with Burns catching sight of a mouse, whose nest has just been dug up by his ploughshare. Being a poet, he not only ‘sees’ the mouse, but ‘feels’ what it feels. He travels from the outwardness of its “wee” size, and its smoothly “sleekit” skin, via its “cow’rin” posture, to the inwardness of its “tim’rous” feelings, and the “panic” in its “breastie”. This is not just sympathy for the mouse in its plight, but empathy with the frightened little creature. That’s what gives force to the next verse’s reference to “Nature’s social union”. Burns isn’t sentimentalising in this poem. it really mattered to him, that he had caused such distress, however unintentionally, to this now destitute “earth-born companion, and fellow mortal.”

Burns is ahead of Darwin here in challenging the kind of complacent superiority and thoughtless ill-treatment which too often arises from “man’s dominion”. I wish Burns could have known that a human being shares about 85% of his/her genes with a mouse! He’d have got the message. I think the ‘human supremacy’ people among us need to get the message that they share about 60% of their genes with bananas! If we’re in the business of declaring that ‘life is sacred’, we should also be in the business of applying that to all forms of life, not just our own. It isn’t you and I, but the deep mystery of life itself, even in a mouse, that is the wonder of wonders.

A buddhist reading this poem might well note that the mouse is not an isolated ‘thing’ that’s detachable from its surroundings. As soon as he sees it, Burns has a grasp of its whole situation. It’s existence in that moment is entirely linked to the “thraves” of corn which provided it with a little food; the left-over ‘leaves and stibble’ that enabled it to build its “wee bit housie”; the necessary ploughing of the fields which has led, in this instance, to an unforseen disaster; the threatening weather with “sleety dribble and cranreuch cauld”; the anguished thoughts and heartfelt feelings of the remorseful poet; the whole variable and unpredictable way in which time and the world unfold themselves. Mouse and poet are parts of one all-enveloping whole. 

If we could but grasp in our hearts as well as in our minds, that human beings, and all living beings, and everything that is, are inextricably linked together in mutual dependency, then the poet’s sympathy and empathy, for each and for all, might become the norm, rather than an all too prevalent self-centredness and cold-hearted, “cranreuch” indifference.

In bringing the poem to its conclusion, Burns sees how similar the experience of human and mouse might be. If we become ‘over-attached’ to our hopes and dreams, we’re likely to suffer “grief and pain”, because everything is dependent on everything else, but everything keeps on changing and nothing lasts. And so “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” But here is where the mouse does have one advantage – it can’t become ‘over-attached’,  because it lives its life in each moment as it comes. It doesn’t add extra weight to the present with memories of “prospects drear”, nor with anxieties about ‘prospects future’. Whatever else it says, this poem encourages us to learn how to live, like Burns’s mouse, in the here-and-now. As someone else once said, “There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings.” 

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