Of Mice and Poetry
January 25, 2023
Tonight is Burns Night, a cozy and festive evening devoted to celebrating Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns, on what is now the 264th anniversary of his birth. Though he only lived to be 37, he produced over 550 poems and songs and has become an icon of Scotland and its traditional dialect. On this night, many gather at Burns Suppers around the world where the centerpiece of the evening is the piping in of the haggis and the recitation of Robert Burns’ poem, To a Haggis. Burns is credited with popularizing the haggis, which in his time was a cheap and nutritious peasant dish, and is still made from sheep’s offal, oats, suet, and spices.
As demonstrated by his poem extolling the virtues of a common farmer’s dish, a defining characteristic of Burns’ poems is their everyday subject matter. In George Aiton’s introduction to Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, he describes the breadth of Burns’ inspiration, writing, “A mouse, a daisy, a suet pudding, a favorite mare, a calf, the toothache, a stormy night, and even a louse, are made the subjects of poems…” Robert Burns truly found inspiration everywhere he looked.
One of his most famous poems is, in fact, To a Mouse, the “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” that was disturbed while he plowed a field. Burns devotes six of his eight stanzas to the straightforward discussion of the mouse’s plight that rouses in the reader a perhaps unexpected sympathy for the small fieldmouse. In the last two stanzas, Burns turns philosophical and provides one of the most famous phrases in the English language, co-opted later by Steinbeck, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley (go oft astray), an lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain for promised joy.” Burns finds virtue and a freedom denied to humans in the fact that the mouse can only comprehend the present and the immediate, fearing not for the future and regretting not the past.
Burns’ pedestrian subjects reminded me of a much more modern poet, Mary Oliver, who is one of the most plain-spoken poets I’ve read. Where Burns composed in verse, Oliver’s poems are free-form and at times stream-of-consciousness. Oliver, too, wrote about a mouse, but this time it is The Sea Mouse which is really a type of worm (aphrodita hastata) that is known to wash up on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean after storms. Like Burns, Oliver describes her subject with such sympathy that the reader feels sorrow for the dying worm in her hand, perceiving that what she is describing is perhaps our own inevitable death, as in “With the tip of my finger I stroked it, tenderly, little darling, little dancer, little pilgrim, gray pouch slowly filling with death.”
Each poet drew inspiration from the natural world and commonplace things around them. Their creativity lay in making the connection to the human condition that rouses feeling in the reader, whether forging kinship as Oliver did, or showing sharp contrast between human and mouse as did Burns. That emotional response from the reader connects him or her to the poem and to the author.
When we create, it is not enough to describe. Our intended audience may read a line, glance at a painting, appreciate a melody, but only briefly, if we do not give them a “so what”. How does our work connect to their lives and make them stop and think about what they have just read, seen, or heard? These connections do not need to be as profound as the topic of death. It could be the call to live more simply or to find small joys in each day. It could be care for children or the love of family. For a work to show true creativity and make a difference in the world, it needs to connect the creative subject to the observer in a way that will leave an impression.
 Thomas Carlyle, Burns, ed. George B. Aiton (Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co, 1896), 26.  Robert Burns, The Poetical Works of Robert Burns (London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1890), 28.  Mary Oliver, Devotions (New York: Penguin Books, 2020) 275.