Happy birthday today to one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poets, the inimitable Robert Burns!
Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland in 1759, the national poet of Scotland was the oldest of seven children, attended school sporadically, and seemed destined to spend his life toiling on the farm. But his pen saved him.
His brother convinced him to publish a book of poetry. The result, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was an instant hit. Burns became known throughout the country.
Like thousands of people in the nineteenth century, Lincoln loved Burns. Contemporaries remembered listening to Lincoln recite Burns’ poetry from memory. It was no easy task. Consider, for example, one of Burns’ most famous poems, “To a Mouse,” which was included in his first book poetry. Like much of his work, the poem is written in the Scots dialect. Not only could Lincoln decipher what Burns was saying, but he could mimic the Scots dialect. His performances captured both the poet’s rich humor and deep sentiment.
Try to make your way through the poem and see if you can decipher what Burns is saying to the mouse. Notice the second to last verse, which contains the famous phrase, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Go oft agley (awry).” The poem inspired John Steinbeck’s brief 1937 novel Of Mice and Men.
“To a Mouse”
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering 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,
What makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whiles, 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 mony 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 dreaer!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!