A Poet and His Mouse

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![1] 

Scotland’s most famous and beloved poet Robert Burns was a farmer. That was how he initially eked out a living—he was the oldest of seven children of a tenant farmer; he grew up poor. In 1785, right before winter, he was plowing his land when his blade rendered a tiny rodent homeless. So when he got home, he took out his pen and wrote down eight verses, addressing the mouse. He filled each line with deep regret as well as with a keen understanding of the creature’s life: her need to forage and sometimes steal his grain; her need to build a home before ‘the bleak December winds’ swept across the fields. “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” became perhaps Burns’s best-known work, next to his song “Auld Lang Syne.”

Fast-forward two and a quarter centuries: Alloway, Scotland in 2010. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum was under construction, almost completed. Its caretaker, the National Trust for Scotland, had launched a competition to find an artist who could create a public work of art, to celebrate the poet, that would be situated on the walkway of the new museum. The contemporary Scottish sculptor Kenny Hunter received the commission; he had already established his name around the globe with large works of animals and people and skeletons that have been labeled ‘anti-monuments.’ The artist has noted his sculptures “look as if they have just popped out of a machine or a Kellogg’s cornflake packet—yet they are monumentalised and subversive.”[2] For the winning work Hunter chose to pay homage to none other than Burns’s mouse, a seven-foot bronze that he titled Monument to a Mouse. In an interview, he said, shortly after hearing his proposal had been selected “my cat deposited a dead field mouse outside my door just before bedtime. It’s a common thing for cats to do of course, but the mouse was in just the right pose and unusually for my cat she had left it perfectly intact. So I put it in the freezer and took it to the studio in the morning to begin work on the model. It helped tremendously in developing the form that my monumental mouse would take.”[3]

Ironic, I’m thinking, that the tribute to the poet and his mouse was inspired by a mouse who had died. It surely would have given Burns pause. According to the literary scholar and historian, Harvard University Professor, Emeritus David Perkins, in late eighteenth-century England people were starting to show a greater kindness toward animals—Romanticism’s ideals of nature spilling over. But these attitudes were changing slowly, and the writings often included appeals to “God’s love for his creatures” and pigeonholed the poor as the ones who were brutal. In that, Perkins points out, Burns was unique.[4] The ‘Peasant-Poet’—as he was called in his day—neither invoked God nor displayed a moment of heartlessness in his lines of the farmer.

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!

[1] Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” in its entirety, with links for translation: www.robertburns.org.

[2] Press release, Conner Contemporary Art, 2002.

[3] National Trust for Scotland, “Monumental mouse for Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, June 7, 2010.

[4] David Perkins, Romanticism and Animal Rights, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

(Image: Monument to a Mouse by Kenny Hunter, on the grounds of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum; through August 12, 2012, a smaller sculpture of the mouse, made in acrylic resin, is being shown in the Royal Academy of Art’s summer show in London.)

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