Scottish poetry lovers will be celebrating another Burns’ birthday on January 25 (1759) with wild repetitions of: “And we’ll take’ a cup of kindness yet for Auld Lang Syne.”
Usually, these are the only words most of them know from his beautiful short poetic appeal to remember past years and friendships. At some gatherings, serious fans will wrestle with dialects, and one or two will take a stab at a rare poem dedicated “To a Mouse” involving a one-sided conversation and advice “to a mouse on turning her up in her nest with the plough.”
It is not a children’s poem or a nursery rhyme.
Burns was apologizing to the mouse for leaving her only a “wee bit house in ruin from the plough,” its fragile bits and pieces blown away by the wind with little left to build a new house “with bleak December winds still blowing both snell (bitter cold) an’ keen.” All the mouse had left was “a heap of leaves … that cost thee many a weary nibble – and now thou’s turned out for all thy trouble to suffer the winter’s dribble and cranreuch (hoarfrost) cauld.”
And the lesson, according to Burns? Well, it’s more for his fellow humans than the mouse which is trembling in fear, a “wee, sleek it, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, O what a panic’s in thy breastie” just waiting for Burns to get out of the way so she can forage her way to another place of shelter. But Burn’s spoke to her anyway and 260 years later we get the message – or at least we should.
“But Mousie thou art no thy lane (not alone)
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Gang aft agley, (oft go astray)
And leave us naught but grief an’ pain
For promised joy
“Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only touches thee:
But Och! I backward cast my eye
On prospects drear!
And forward, tho’ I canna see
I guess and fear!”
I think of the last two lines often when U.S. President Donald Trump threatens and the men and women who could control him become “wee sleekit, cowering, timorous beasties” and leave their nation and the world to guess and fear.