Animals, ethics and Robert Burns

Posted in CF Writing by chrisfremantle on January 25, 2011

The question of the interspecies relations, and in particular those between humans and other inhabitants of the planet, is a key thread on the ecoartscotland site.  This is a brief attempt to articulate a couple of thoughts, and needs further development, but it seems appropriate to ‘get it out’ tonight and then come back to it later.

[Robert Burns is of course remembered as the ploughman poet and is Scotland’s national bard.  His birthday is remembered through Burns’ Night celebrations the world over on 25th January, and his songs are still sung, not least at New Year.]

Robert Burns’ poem, TO A MOUSE,  ON TURNING HER UP IN HER NEST WITH THE PLOUGH,  NOVEMBER, 1785, is a particular example of the way that Burns uses animals in his work, not just as metaphors and similes, but also empathetically, exploring their experience of the world in his imagination.

In “To A Mouse,” the first stanza establishes the circumstances: Burns is ploughing and ‘turns up’ the nest of a mouse.

The second stanza is an apology, not just for breaking open the nest, but for the way that man has exerted his control over the world and in particular has upset nature’s structure of relations between animals.  Burns goes on to place himself on an equal footing with the mouse, as “fellow-mortal” and “earth-born companion”.  Burns understands animals to have an “ill opinion” of man and, based on that, he empathises with the way that the mouse startles, not just at sudden exposure, but at man.

The poem goes on to describe the home of the mouse as a shelter from the harsh winter, and to justify the mouse’s theiving ways as necessary for survival.  Throughout the poem, Burns is building affinities between the animal and man.

The second stanza is a radical repositioning of man in relation to other animals, positioning the animal at the centre of a disruption caused by man and exploring the consequences through an understanding of the animal’s needs.  Framing these in terms of food, shelter and peace, Burns creates an alignment with perceived basic human needs.

The last stanza concludes with the idea that the mouse is relatively blessed, being concerned only with the present (albeit an extended present that includes preparations for winter), where Burns looks back on dreary events and forward to things unknown, but feared.

In the context of ongoing discussions about human-animal relations articulated in the works of artists as various as Erica Fielder and Kate Foster, this poem offers us a reminder that the radical creative imagination has addressed these issues over a very long period.

Burns’ works articulate a wider ethical and political concern.  This is exemplified, for instance, by the statement Burns makes in a letter in 1789, “Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injures society at large or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.”

(Whilst Burns’ Scots language can be challenging if you are not used to it, the best approach is to speak it out loud.)

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, 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,
. Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
. An’ fellow-mortal!

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,
. And never miss’t!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin;
Its 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 and 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 a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief and 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 drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
. I guess an’ fear.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: