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ContentsContext and Purpose
“To a Mouse (On Turning Her up in her Nest with the Plough, November 1785)”
|Lesson Title: Robert Burns, “To a Mouse,” and Best-Laid Plans ... |
Course and Grade: American Literature, 11th
Generalization: The main idea here is how Steinbeck chose the title of the book to relate to the ideas expressed in Burns’s poem, relating the best-laid plans of both mice and men (dreams, of a home, facing the cruel world) and using the metaphor of the mouse thrown out of her house as a way of expressing what George and Lennie faced: economically, socially, etc. Also, the idea of ‘fate’ versus ‘free will.’
Skills: metaphorical thinking, interpretation; ‘free will,’ and ‘fate,’ and what happens in the first chapter in terms of plot, and to understand the characters’ relationships.
Development of Assessments: Verbal, question and answer, discussion.
Materials: Lesson plan, annotated copies of the Burns poem, copies of the descriptions of the characters, SmartBoard, copies of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Anticipatory Set: Talk about the title of the novel, and have students make predictions as to how Steinbeck chose it.
^ “Today we’re going to look at the inspiration for Steinbeck’s title for our next novel, and one of the major themes: fate versus free will. I want for you to understand what this poem is literally about, what it’s about metaphorically, and I want you all to understand what the terms ‘fate’ and ‘free will’ mean, and discuss whether you think we in fact have free will or not, and whether there is such a thing as fate or not. As we read the novel this week, how this theme applies will become clearer. For those of you who have read this book before, please don’t spoil anything for anyone else by giving away anything. After the poem I’ll read the first chapter aloud to you, and we’ll discuss it. Your homework for tomorrow will be to write a journal on what you thought about and how you felt about the chapter; I do NOT want a summary of the chapter, but rather, your reaction to it, what you liked or disliked, what you found funny or interesting or confusing or whatever.”
Instruction: Tell students significance of certain vocabulary terms in the poem. Read through the poem, and discuss its significance in relation to the title, metaphorically. Then go over the characters in the book and read aloud to them from the first chapter and then discuss that chapter.
Wee = small; sleeket = glossy-coated
cowran = cowering (in fear)
bickering brattle = rushing/scurrying
laith = loathe
pattle = plough (plow)
whyles = sometimes
maun = must
A daimen icker in a thrave = odd ear in
lave = remainder
foggage green = coarse grass
Baith = both; snell an’ keen = bitter
coulter = plough (or, plow)
stibble = stubble
But = without; hald = holding (as in property, ‘household’); thole = endure; cranreuch = frost; cauld = cold
thy lane = alone
by Robert Burns
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what 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,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whyles, 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’ wast,
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 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 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!
Gang aft agley = often go awry (awry means wrong)
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!
Gilbert Burns says, ‘The verses to the Mouse and Mountain Daisy were composed on the occasions mentioned, and while the author was holding the plough: I could point out the particular spot where each was composed. Holding the plough was a favourite situation with Robert for poetic compositions, and some of his best verses were produced while he was at that exercise.’
‘John Blane,’ says Mr. Chambers, ‘who was farm-servant at Mossgiel at the time of its composition, still (1838) lives at Kilmarnock. He stated to me that he recollected the incident perfectly. Burns was holding the plough, with Blane for his driver, when the little creature was observed running off across the field. Blane, having the pettle, or plough-cleaning utensil, in his hand at the moment, was thoughtlessly running after it, to kill it, when Burns checked him, but not angrily, asking what ill the poor mouse had ever done him. The poet then seemed to his driver to grow very thoughtful, and, during the remainder of the afternoon, he spoke not. In the night time he awoke Blane, who slept with him, and, reading the poem which had in the meantime been composed, asked what he thought of the mouse now.’
First published in the Kilmarnock edition it has moved countless readers and critics including Snyder who acclaimed it the outstanding achievement in that volume: ‘the tragedy of the mouse has become the tragedy of Burns himself, and of all heart-broken folk who review the past with regret, or await the future with misgiving.’
Behind what is ostensibly an inspired occasional poem is the tension between philosophical faith and personal insecurity. Informing the address is Burns’ Deistic belief in a natural religion, a notion reinforced by his reading of favourite poets such as Thomson and Pope. Subjectively, Burns was in a poignant position in November 1785: the previous year his father had died, a victim of ‘the rapacious hell-hounds that growl in the kennel of justice.’ The previous month his brother John had died at the age of sixteen. Burns had catastrophe on his consciousness.