To a Mouse

Last Thursday, January 25, was Robbie Burns’ Day, the day to celebrate the poet and all things Scottish. My wife and I were invited to a party where we laughed, toasted, ate, and reveled in our Scottish heritage no matter how thin or thick. My contribution was to read “To A Mouse,” perhaps my favourite Robert Burns poem.

To a Mouse


On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785.

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!

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, whyles, 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.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble

Has cost thee monie 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![1]

It occurred to me as I read this poem, that this may be one of the few Robert Burns poems where he is somewhat vulnerable. Most of his poems are proud and brazen; for example, he taunts the devil in his “Address to the Devil.” But here he is empathetic toward a tiny mouse for disturbing her and ruining her winter home; there is regret in what he has done. We sense that this poem is about more than farming and mice and kernels of corn. “A daimen-icker in a thrave; [an odd ear of corn in twenty-four sheaves of corn] ’S a sma’ request; [such a small request from the mouse].” Truly, he has the broader stroke of a human lifespan in mind and the last stanza in particular shows that the great poet was capable of regrets of the past and fears of the future.

“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!”

We humans inhabit time.

On that same day, I read a few pages from another book in the quiet meditations of my home. I read a few pages of How to Inhabit Time by James K. A. Smith. As a philosopher, Smith is also aware that we humans are aware of the past and future even as we live in the present. He points out how we stand on the shoulders of many who have gone before us.

“Ancestors with courage and tenacity have made it possible for us to be. Immigrant parents and grandparents gifted us with a set of possibilities in a new world. The generations that created art museums, built our universities, and laid the grids for public utilities keep giving to us.” …

“But, just as often these invisible legacies – these time release capsules of the past, these zombie fossils of our heritage – are active in our present in ways that are detrimental to human flourishing. The demographics of our neighborhoods still follow the partitions of redlining in the twentieth century that barred Blacks from owning homes. Freeways are still imposing concrete invaders that decimated marginal communities expendable in the name of progress for the rest of “us.” All our suburbs with four-lane streets but no sidewalks have bequeathed a world for cars and carbon consumption, inhospitable to humans who might want to walk. The number of women around a board room table tells us that patriarchy is alive and well. Our congregations and denominations still reflect histories of immigration, segregation, and suburbanization.”[2]

Some of our regrets of the past are more difficult to deal with than regretting that we turned up a mouse with our plow. We have lived to regret what our own ancestors have done. Smith goes on to quote other poetry. He quotes the lyrics of a song by The Avett Brothers called “We Americans.”

“I am a son of Uncle Sam

And I struggle to understand the good and evil

But I’m doing the best I can

In a place built on stolen land with stolen people.”…

“blood in the soil with cotton and tobacco” and “blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar.”

“God will you keep us wherever we go?

Can you forgive us for where we’ve been?

We Americans.”

Smith, the Avetts, and others including Matthew Aucoin, are saying that the past is “a still living, ever mutating compost heap, a fertile ecosystem within which we forage, hunt, build.”[3]

“We are growing in this compost of history that needs to be sifted: there is certainly refuse to leave behind, but also transmogrifications of our past that are now fertile soil for a different future. Some seedlings are emerging that we might transplant.”[4]

In the last twenty and more years, we have seen the many ways in which we the people of the West have tried to handle our collective privilege and guilt. Some of our handling of our guilt has been with plain hubris and selfishness, some with nostalgia, and some with despair. Burns and Smith are both pointing us in a different direction. They tell us that we must inhabit time, we must be aware of the good and bad of the past, and we must avoid despair. In his book, Smith goes on in many practical ways and I highly recommend his thoughts. For now, let us not forget what both Burns and Smith would have us know:

Truly, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

          Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

          For promis’d joy!”[5]

“Let us inhabit time, refusing both nostalgia and despair.”[6]

Works Cited

Aucoin, Matthew. 2021. “A Dance to the Music of Death”. New York: New York Review of Books.

Johanna Brownell, ed. 2000. Robert Burns Selected Poems and Songs. Edison: Castle Books.

Smith, James K. A. 2022. How to Inhabit Time. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress.

[1] (Johanna Brownell 2000)

[2] (Smith 2022)

[3] (Aucoin 2021) available at

[4] (Smith 2022)

[5] (Johanna Brownell 2000)

[6] (Smith 2022)

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