Robert Burns’ Poetry “Of Mice and Men”

Robert Burns text
A handwritten manuscript by Scottish poet Robert Burns is displayed at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock, Scotland, March 25, 2014. (Suzanne Plunkett/REUTERS)

Despite the notorious difficulty of the Scots dialect, the poetry of Robert Burns enjoys a global legacy.

Tonight Scots around the world will celebrate the poet Robert Burns (1759–1796). They’ll eat haggis and drink whiskey; recite poems and make speeches. Just over three weeks ago, renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” were sung to bring in the New Year. “For auld lang syne . . . We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.” Arm-in-arm, cheery celebrants probably asked one another, “What does it mean?”

Despite the notorious difficulty of the Scots dialect, the poetry of Robert Burns enjoys a global legacy. In the U.S., there are more statues of Burns than there are of any American poet. Abraham Lincoln could recite most of Burns’s work from memory. The naturalist John Muir, who later founded the Sierra Club, carried a book of Burns poems and counted it among his most treasured possessions. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: “He [Burns] has made that Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man.”

Americans will no doubt be familiar with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. To understand the genius of Burns’ appeal, one need look no further than the poem that inspired this great title: “To a Mouse,” or, “To a Mouse: on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785.” If you want to read the full poem — it’s here.

According to tradition, it based on a real-life encounter when, out in the fields, Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest. Consider the opening line, “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie.” From the outset, we have everything we need to understand the mouse. However, it is more than just five-word portrait. This perfectly captures the plowman’s relation to her. We already know, from the title, that the mouse is of the gentler sex. “Wee” an “tim’rous” are distinctly Scottish and full of tenderness. “Beastie” identifies the mouse as an adversary, but it does so in good humor. “Sleeket” has a double meaning – silky or sneaky – and either way invokes admiration. Then there’s the plowman’s implicit pity in “cowran”.

In typical Burns fashion, there’s a swift zooming-out in perspective in stanza two, where we are moved from the local to the universal. The plowman addresses the mouse as an equal: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union.” These lines, which justify Burns’ enduring appeal to ecologists and conservationists, like the aforementioned John Muir, relate to Romanticism’s much broader theme, the relation between Man and Nature.

But if this is profound, it is also unexpected. This rural encounter ought to be commonplace. Endearing, perhaps – but it’s hardly the stuff of tragedies. Yet the drama Burns affords it is a testament to his multi-dimensional voice. Burns’ biographer, Robert Crawford, describes it as his “performative impulse” whereby the “innate drama of his life” informs the “reach of his poetry.”

And so there is an undeniable undercurrent of humanitarian warmth as we learn how the plowman is affected by — and complicit in — the mouse’s distress: “At me, thy poor, earth-born companion, / An’ fellow mortal!” Here Burns is also beginning to gather momentum for the poem’s famous denouement.

Then suddenly, Burns flips the guilt back on the mouse and plays to our original expectations. She’s a thief! But then again, who could blame her? “Poor beastie, thou maun live!” Hers is a crime of necessity, of survival. Meanwhile, the plow’s clumsy destruction has caused her “wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!” So the little mouse will have to face “bleak December’s winds ensuing” without any “cozie” shelter. What is surprising is that the cause of her unprecedented woe is not the plowman, but a cruel and inexorable fate, “Till crash! The cruel coluter past,/Out thro’ thy cell.”

Once again, Burns uses the address to the mouse as an opportunity to make a grander claim; that all mortal creatures, mankind included, are victims to chance. He then pens the immortal words: “The best laid schemes o’Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft agley”. Which later inspired the title of a Steinbeck’s classic and the motif of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

In the final stanza, Burns’ teasing tone concludes in clarity. While the mouse and the plowman are united by “Nature’s social union”, they are also distinctive. 

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

Ultimately, mankind has it worse.

His consciousness renders the precariousness of life, and the reign of chance, tyrannical.

But Och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear.

Source: Robert Burns’ Poetry — Of Mice and Men | National Review

Advertisements

Land of westlin’ winds: the best Scottish poetry for Burns Night

James Naughtie’s picks include bashed pillows, sharp stars and sexy spacemen. What are your favourites?

In a week that feels ripe for celebrating the reach of poetry – and just in time for Burns Night – the Scottish Poetry Library has asked James Naughtie to choose his “best of the best” Scottish poems of the past 15 years.

Moving from, as Naughtie puts it, “Edwin Morgan in his last years talking about love” to “Kathleen Jamie catching a sense of national belonging in a few short lines”, it is a soul-quenching selection. There is humour and beauty in Claire Askew’s I Am the Moon, and You Are the Man on Me: “Tonight, I am white and full. / My surface is all curves / and craters,” she opens, later writing, deliciously: “Your compass does not work here, / but you are sexy / in your spaceman suit.” Liz Lochhead’s In the Mid-Midwinter, written after John Donne’s A Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day, feels ever so apt for these bleak days of January: “There’s nothing very much to speak of anything to speak of / in the sky except a gey dreich greyness / rain-laden over Glasgow,” she writes. But “the light comes back / the light always comes back.” Lochhead’s description of the winter moon, “fat in the frosty sky among the sharpest stars”, is irresistible.

According to Colin Waters from the Scottish Poetry Library, which has published all the poems on its site, the poems are “part of the long and colourful history of Scottish poetry that Burns embodied through his life and work”. But the collection also shows how poetry has moved on.

“Someone asked me last week whether Burns wasn’t a little ‘problematic’,” Waters says, “particularly his attitude to women and sex. We’re not blind to that, and with the collection including strong contributions by, among others, Liz Lochhead, JL Williams, Katie Ailes and Jen Hadfield, we can see that contemporary Scottish poetry is at least trying to expand the voices it showcases.”

As Naughtie puts it: “We’re stepping into rich pasture here.” But the broadcaster was only considering the last 15 years of Scottish poetry. As it is indeed Burns Night, let’s see what else we might include if we were allowed to consider the full wealth of Scotland’s rich poetic heritage, whether the poetry of Burns himself – Tam o’ Shanter was voted the nation’s favourite in 2012 – or the glory of Violet Jacob’s The Wild Geese, or my own personal favourite Morgan poem, Strawberries. I’ve no agenda other than reading wonderful poetry from the land of “westlin’ winds and fernie braes, / Northern lights and siller tides,”, as Kathleen Jamie writes in Here Lies Our Land, and I hope you’ll join me

Source: Land of westlin’ winds: the best Scottish poetry for Burns Night

Give us a tune “Ca’ the Yowes”

1789 lyrics Robert Burns


Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them where the heather grows
Ca’ them where the burnie rows,
My bonie dearie.

Hark! the mavis’ evening sang
Sounding Cluden’s woods amang,
Then a-fauldin let us gang,
My bonie dearie.

We’ll gae down by Cluden side,
Thro’ the hazels spreading wide,
O’er the waves that sweetly glide
To the moon sae clearly.

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die—but canna part,
My bonie dearie.

Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them where the heather grows
Ca’ them where the burnie rows,
My bonie dearie.

‘More young people should learn to love Auld Lang Syne’

Auld Lang Syne remains one of Robert Burns' best-known works

The next generation could let old anthems be forgotten, according to new research which show Auld Lang Syne is not a New Year hit with younger listeners.

Online streaming data has shown that the traditional ballad sung to ring in the New Year is losing popularity, with mainly older generations still listening. The Scottish song, based on a poem by Robert Burns, was the most-played track between 11.55pm on New Year’s Eve 2017 and 12.05am on January 1 this year, according to streaming service Deezer. However, the hymn to the passing of the old year may be a tradition that is lost on a new generation, with 18 to 25-year-old listeners making up only 5% of those streaming on New Year. More than half of all Auld Lang Syne streams are from listeners aged over 45.

Deezer editor Adam Read said: “This New Year’s Eve, we’re encouraging more young people to embrace the festive tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne.” The song remains popular in Scotland, with Glasgow the location of the most streams. This is followed by Farnham in Surrey, with Aberdeen, Barry and Great Yarmouth rounding off the top five. Burns first penned the poem in 1788, claiming to have collected the verse from a more ancient Scots song. Put to a traditional folk tune, it became a Scottish custom to sing the song, which was spread across the world through emigration from the British Isles.

Source THE SCOTSMAN: ‘More young people should learn to love Auld Lang Syne’

Musician Mairi is breathing new life into Auld Lang Syne 

he story of Scotland’s most famous song and the life of one of its most celebrated musicians are coming to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Mairi Campbell: Auld Lang Syne is the story of Scotland’s most famous song and the life of one of the nation’s most celebrated musicians. Mairi follows her hugely successful solo theatre show Pulse bringing audiences on a new adventure taking in singing for US President Bill Clinton, a starring role in Sex and the City and a reinterpretation of the Robert Burns classic that changed her life.

Blending storytelling, dance and new music composed in collaboration with David Gray, Mairi Campbell: Auld Lang Syne explores the meaning of one of the world’s most performed songs through the lens of Mairi’s rich experience.

Delivered with her trademark wit, gentle charm and unparalleled musical ability the sequel to five star show Pulse is an unforgettable hour in the company of one of Scotland’s leading artists.

With live music, animation and a singalong, this funny and heartfelt show resonates with wider universal truths.

Mairi Campbell: Auld Lang Syne is a continuation of Mairi’s exploration of multi artform performance and this collaboration is co-devised directed and directed by Kath Burlinson, featuring a collection of tracks composed with musician David Gray with input from musician David Francis and featuring sculpture from sound artist Tim Vincent Smith and animation from Claire Lamond. Mairi Campbell: Auld Lang Syne is part of the 2018 Made in Scotland Showcase.

Source: Musician Mairi is breathing new life into Auld Lang Syne – Scottish Field