Frankie Mouse: Still, the best laid plans of mice.
Arthur Dent: And men.
Frankie Mouse: What?
Arthur Dent: And men. The best laid plans of mice and men.
Frankie Mouse: What have men got to do with it?
O, what a panic is in your breast!
Douglas Adams uses the phrase 'the best-laid schemes of mice and men' so it's safe to assume that he had this poem in mind when he wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide. It is after all about mice, men and the destruction of one of their universes. For those who aren't familiar with Robert Burns' (1759 - 1796) poem To a Mouse it does include the immortal couplet that has since passed into a proverb:
It's from this line that Steinbeck uses with a bit of imagination to virtually turns the eight verse poem into a novel Of Mice and Men. The now familiar line comes from the following incident. It's Burns's brother Gilbert who is responsible for the story that the poem is composed around. While the poet was plowing he turned up a mouse's nest. It was Gilbert who saved the mouse from the spade of the boy who was holding the horses. What sets the poem apart from the rest is that Burns seems to have opened his heart to the mouse, and has a word or two with it as if he's attempting to brighten up an old friend who has, in one way or another, fallen on hard times.
Studying the works of the Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson and combined with the influence of Scottish folk tradition and older Scottish poetry, Burns became conscious of the literary promise of the Scottish regional dialects. During the next two years he produced most of his best-known poems, including To A Mouse, On turning her up in her nest, with the plough, November, 1785. Composed at Mossgiel Farm it is founded in his own experiences of life. It was there where he farmed the land and wrote the poetry that was published in the local paper of the nearby town of Kilmarnok in a periodical by the name of the Edinburgh Magazine. At the age of fifteen, Burn’s father had died leaving him barren farmland so to supplement his income he sold his poems and by the time he was 27 he had became so well known as the “ploughman poet" that he published his first book of verse in 1786. In the Preface to Poems and Songs of Robert Burns the editor writes:
The Kilmarnock volume contained, besides satire, a number of poems like "The Twa Dogs" and "The Cotter's Saturday Night," which are vividly descriptive of the Scots peasant life with which he was most familiar; and a group like "Puir Mailie" and "To a Mouse," which, in the tenderness of their treatment of animals, revealed one of the most attractive sides of Burns' personality. Many of his poems were never printed during his lifetime, the most remarkable of these being "The Jolly Beggars," a piece in which, by the intensity of his imaginative sympathy and the brilliance of his technique, he renders a picture of the lowest dregs of society in such a way as to raise it into the realm of great poetry.
The poetry superbly expresses Burns' deep insights, his tender feelings, and his profound sentiment for compassion. Written in his typical “broad Scots" Burns sees the mouse rushing from its nest, trembling and quaking in terror in front of him. The cutting through the nest of the small field mouse clearly upsets Burns. His thoughts, in plain verse, are addressed to the mouse, observing the damage he had created, his shame and his regret. He notes similarities connecting the poor little mouse, his own desolate life and human weaknesses. He then comforts it that it only has to fear the here and now, while he has had an unexciting past, and "guesses and fears" his future. David Sibbald deciphers some the Scot verses *and makes a few suggestions on how to read them in his Critical Analysis
To a Mouse:
Verse 1. Sleekit in this instance does not mean sly or cunning but sleek coated as in shiny fur. A pattle is a farmers implement, a small spade-like tool used for cleaning the plough.
Verse 2. "Nature's Social Union" is neo-classic English and stands out from the Scots dialect of the poem as a whole, but this sudden intro of a graver phrase is not inappropriate in its context. It gives us a momentary flash of a philosophical view of an order in nature, which is not made the subject of moralizing but only lightly suggested. Light though the suggestion is, it swells out and provides an implicit moral base for the poem. There is no real pause at all in this verse.
Verse 2 & 3. Having at the end of both of these verses made the bridge between the mouse and himself, he leaves this unused, returning to it at the end of the poem. He goes on to build up a picture of the present plight of the mouse, contrasting it with the confident plans it had laid for the future. Daimen means rare or occasional, icker is 1 ear of corn, a thrave is a measure of cut grain consisting of 2 stooks of 12 sheaves each. The lave is the remainder. That line therefore translates as, "We should not grudge the occasional grain out of our huge store"
Verse 4. Note the effective use of the diminutive "wee bit housie" to strengthen the note of friendly concern. Again the pause after the first four lines and the strong close of the stanza.
Verse 7. Burns returns to the bridge he had built earlier and in a deft turn to the poem makes clear its real subject. The often quoted 3rd and 4th lines illustrate most effectively Burns ability to cast a thought into the idiom of the folk proverb, but the lines are more than that, for they mark a return to the bridge between the world of mice and men achieved effortlessly and with apparent casualness. Having linked mice and men in that simple phrase he can proceed to speak of "us" which now means all mortal creatures. Verse 8. The autobiographical nature of the poem becomes fully clear. In the Mouse; Burns effectively uses neo classical English to sound a graver note. This point is worth making since it shows that the English tradition was not always or necessarily a corrupting influence on Burns.
Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
Sibbald goes on to compare the poem to the Steinback novel noting how his title purposely omits the second half of the stanza, namely an' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain for promis'd joy!noting that the author of the novel has used the idea from the first half of the phrase to create his story about the broken dream, the anguish and ache as a replacement for of the promised plan. Sibblad adds that like Burns and his brother, the two characters from the novel, George and Lennie were also working with grain by putting barley onto wagons. Steinbeck has very skillfully kept to the topic of the poem. Later on, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek Adams in Hitchhiker would echo Steinbeck’s observation that everything in life is not black and white and at times we have no control over our own destiny
Composed in 1785 the text was originally published in Robert Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock, 1786). With a rhyming scheme of aaabab. It was the notoriety gained from his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect that influenced Burns to give up on his plans to emigrate to Jamaica. Enthralled by his rapidly increasing status as an illiterate "ploughman poet", Instead he decided to move to Edinburgh and became part of the booming literary scene there. He spent several years gathering, editing, and writing lyrics for traditional Scottish music such as Auld Lang Syne, but died only 10 years later at the early age of 37. After his death his reputation grew faster that it ever did during his lifetime with many of his songs and poems becoming international favorites &mdasheven among those who find his use of Scottish lowland dialect difficult to decipher.
*Additional notes on some of the Scottish words.
- sleekit : sleek.
- bickerin brattle: hurrying scamper.
- laith: loth.
- pattle: a small long-handled spade for removing clay from the ploughshare.
- whyles: sometimes.
- mawn: must.
- daimen: occasional.
- icker: ear of corn.
- a thrave: twenty-four sheaves.
- lave: rest.
- silly: feeble.
- big: build.
- foggage: coarse grass.
- snell: piercing.
- But: without.
- house or hald: house or habitation
- thole: endure.
- cranreuch: hoar-frost.
- no thy lane: not alone.
- a-gley: amiss.
A tip o' the hat to Pseudo_Intellectual for finding the Adam’s quote.
RPO -- Robert Burns : To a Mouse:
Accessed May 7, 2005
Sibbald, David . Critical Analysis
To a Mouse:
Accessed May 7, 2005
Preface courtesy of The Project Gutenberg Etext of Poems and Songs of Robert Burns:
Accessed May 7, 2005.