Sunday, 19 March 2017

Nature's Social Union - Burns and the Poetry of Mice

On Thursday just gone, as part of a raft of events building up to UNESCO World Poetry Day, I hosted a talk and informal discussion about poetry for the Morley Golden Days group, who meet monthly at Morley Library. Poems had been selected, including works by Yeats, John Masefield, Kipling and Roger McGough, which I had been tasked with researching and talking about - in most cases fairly famous poems which over the years I had assumed to know well. But in fact, the exercise was revelatory - forcing me to re-read, and re-appraise apparently well-trodden ground, and in the case of one poem in particular - Robbie Burns' To a Mouse - reach a whole new level of appreciation.

Supposedly composed after the author accidentally disturbed a mouse's nest, To a Mouse was first published in 1786, in Burns' volume Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect - and we were lucky at Morley to have the poem read for us by a Scottish group member, far more accurately than I could have managed!   Indeed, one of the joys of Burns' poetry is surely the addictive jamboree of colloquialisms, as evocative of time as they are of place:

"Weasucks!" as an 18th Century "alas," sounds like it has burst from the pages of Shakespeare, while the profusion of agriculturalisms  reveal a whole lexicon of extinct terms - mailens, mashlum, melder, pattle, plews, parritch, thraves  ...
To a Mouse its self features a raft of words sufficiently multitudinous to contain a new vocabulary:
of  bickerin' brattle (to run noisily)
O 'foggage green - (green moss)
cranreuch cauld (hoar-frost)
and of course, the well known phrase The best laid schemes a' mice an' men Gang aft agley (The best laid schemes of mice and men, often go awry.)
While these terms  share regional origins, they are unlikely to be heard tripping from the tongue of any of Burns' Ayrhsire descendants today, and his unaffected use of the everyday language his time and background place him in a particular era and social setting.  Burns' poetry is often cited as archetypically Scottish, while Burns the man (who wrote in standard English complimented by light Scots, and whose Scottish Dialect volume in which the poem concerned appeared was printed in order to finance a desired move to the Caribbean) has been posthumously co-opted into a untidily defined pigeon-hole in order to suit the shifting purposes of political nationalism.  Yet, while poems like To a Mouse make use of colloquial terminology and words, they do so in a way that connects them amid conventional language, serving to sharpen the regional significance of their setting - dialect in poetry without it being purely "Dialect Poetry."  Robert Burns' body of work, and To a Mouse in particular, conjure up for me a sense of the poetic rather than political, and, as I shall explain, manifest an invocation of common humanity, compassion, and alertness to the natural world.

Wee sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie, the poem famously begins, O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
"Sleekit" in this instance has sometimes been assumed to imply "sly or cunning, but in fact means sleek coated, as in shiny fur, while the image of the mouse as cowering or panicked immediately provides for the ensuing demonstrations of empathy and self-reproach.  Indeed, with words like "cozy" and his descriptions of the nest as the mouse's wee-bit housie, the poet frames his subject in a warm hug of affection, and sets the mouse up for us as a creature to be fond of.  Envisaging the nest as a house is an early hint of a theme Burns will develop in this poem - that of "mice and men" sharing a common thread of experience - but his whimsical "housie" makes it clear that what he is referring to is not a house in the human sense, but rather something house-like, the architects of the human and non-human world having reached simultaneous if independent conclusions about the need for protection from the elements and a place to put one's head down.  With this extremely simple, clever, almost unnoticeably subtle "house" extension, Burns levers the poem from anthropomorphic mirroring towards a suggestion that humans and non-humans are indeed different in lifestyle, if similar in predicament and needs. 

For centuries, of course, there had been a tradition of assessing the human condition through animal metaphor, and of presenting human-like traits in animals, and vice-versa. But Burns goes further, as I will explore. It is worth noting first, though, that it is not in theme alone that To a Mouse can be said to have broken the poetic mould, but also in form.  To a Mouse is structured, like fifty or so of Burns' poems, in "Standard Habbie", a form dating to 11th Century French love poetry, popularised in Middle English and in Mediaeval Miracle Plays, and later embraced and perfected by the 17th Century Scottish poet Robert Sempill, whose lament for the famous Kilbarchan town piper Habbie Simpson is the first significant example of the form in English.   The classic Habbie stanza, then, comprises six lines, being an Iambic sexain in which the first and third lines rhyme, while the fourth rhymes with the last.  To quote directly from Sempill's elegy:

He counted was a wall'd wight Man,
And fiercely at,Foot-ball he ran ;
At every Game the gree he wan,

For pith and speed
The like of Habbie was not then,
But now he's dead

As in the above excerpt, the traditional Habbie contained several pregnant pauses emphasized by full-stops. Though its earlier practitioners tended to place the pause only following the first two lines - creating a kind of prologue for a more substantial quatrain -  by the time Robbie Burns began to try his hand at it, the Standard Habbie had matured into a complex structure.  Sempill's poem varies in its use of pauses, and the stanza above reads to me more like a ticked-off list of attributes, with the last line abruptly blunted by a kind of, surely unintended, bathos.  But later in the poem, he raises the form to a more compelling rhythm and structure, asking:

Or who shall cause our Shearers shear              
Who will bend up the Brags of Weit?                      .
Bring in the Bells or good play Meir,
In time of need.                                         
Hab Simpson could what needs you spear   
But now he's dead

In enacting pauses every two lines, making the stanza read like a series of rhyming sentences, but by retaining the following lines within the same sexain, the poet is able to build up a narrative and tell the story in an almost song-like way.  In his poem, Burns is not averse to structuring his stanzas around the traditional prologue-like opening couplet, as he does in the verse immediately preceding the poem's moral pivot, assessing the position of the mouse just post the wrecking of its nest:

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 elsewhere, the poem is built around a much more consistent rhythm, regular pauses emphasizing each snapshot of the situation:

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!

So expertly did Burns adopt the Habbie that it came to be known as "The Burns Stanza."  In his use of it, the poet is experimental and unorthodox, and unafraid of breaking rules: in the second stanza of To a Mouse, he writes without full-stops so that the pauses are couched between commas which lend a flowing, musical feel and in any case connect the lines into a thematic narrative which gradually sharpens in its picture of a conjunction between poet and mouse.  Burns' second stanza also presents an early, but significant, juncture in the poem:

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!

To begin, Burns chooses to express regret at his clumsy ploughing, seeing in his accidental demolition a reflection of the whole destructive impact of humanity on nature - and this a good forty years before the Industrial Revolution.  But this regret is both Universal and personal, the latter evidenced by both the "truly" which Burns uses as if to assure his mouse and readers that the contrition is genuine, and to some extent by the informal "I'm" which starts the stanza: such a seemingly casual contraction drags the statement back from an apology on behalf of other people, and, by means of sounding like a snatch from a real life conversation, into the realms of individual reflection. 
But the opening statement is interesting also in its reversion to formality.  Nature's social union is an apparently out-of-place, neo-Classical, English sounding phrase, seemingly less likely to be found in poetry, and more in philosophy.  It suggests a kind of metaphysical, moral contract built on natural balances, a phrase that might just as easily have been owed to the writings of John Locke, or indeed of great Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith, or David Hume.  Indeed, Burns concludes the stanza with the commiserating, but comparative, declaration of himself as the mouse's poor, earth-born companion, / An' fellow-mortal.  This is a groundbreaking poetic move, as Burns goes further than a simple comparison - he is bridging the gulf between human and animal, comparing with empathy and inserting himself into the mouse's predicament and vice-versa.

But Mousie, thou are 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!

It seems strange that Burns, on the cusp of a long-wished move to the West Indies, which promised to be life-changingly lucrative, should feel the future might hold nothing more than grief and pain.  What subconscious or suppressed self doubts might his grim complaints reveal, that he felt himself in a position to envy that of a mouse whose fragile abode he had so easily destroyed?  He expands on this perspective in his closing lines:

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!

In re-discovering this historic poem, I have found To a Mouse to represent a sea-change in the attitudes of poetry towards the plight of wild animals, and the roles of humans in maintaining the delicate balances of nature.  Heaven knows what Burns would make of today's industrialized plunder of resources, the erasure of wild habitats to carpet evermore and more of our green spaces with housing, supermarkets and roads, the trashing of the environment which seems to characterize so much modern behaviour, from the greedy profiteering of corrupt ministers to the vandalism of those who smother gardens and green spaces with poisonous chemicals. 
A few years after the publication of this poem, Burns would turn to the suffering of an injured hare, mangled by a hunt, and give even fuller vent to his disgust at the relentless assault on nature:

Inhuman man! curse on thy barb'rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart! 

before once again engaging empathically with the animal its self:

Go live, poor wand'rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.

Since I first began researching To a Mouse, echoes of other literary mice began creeping into my memory - most notably the unexpected visitor in Isaac Bashevis Singer's story The Letter Writer, in which a man's worldview is transformed in connection with the arrival of a mouse into his apartment one winter while he convalesces from a life-threatening flu, impelling him to become a vegetarian:

What do they know - all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world - about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.

The above seems cut from the same cloth as Burns' impassioned anger at the wounding of the hare.  And yet, my final thoughts on Burns and his unlucky, lucky mouse stemmed from a very different place - and a poet almost wholly different to Burns in background and legacy.  Philip Larkin is rarely remembered for any advocacy of animal rights, yet in some of his strongest poems, Larkin - who in his will left a substantial donation to the RSPCA - was to portray the world of animals in sympathetic, loving terms. Throughout my work on To a Mouse, Larkins's lines kept coming back to me, and the thought of one poem in particular - though not about a mouse - would not leave me.  The Mower, which Larkin published in The Hull Literary Club magazine in 1979, describes his accidental killing of a hedgehog while cutting his lawn. The poem was described by Tom Cook as "a late elegiac masterpiece" and, like To a Mouse, transposes the positions of the animal and human worlds within an inter-species equality.  It feels especially appropriate to consider this poem in the context of my UNESCO activities.  They continue on Tuesday with an evening of international poetry and art, bringing together poets and performers from across the globe, including those currently embroiled in terrible, seemingly intractable, conflict.


The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

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