When you were at school, I’m sure that many of you read the book “Of mice and men”. But very few of you will have even thought about the source material.
Today, I want to be talking about the Burns poem that it came from “to a mouse”. I’ll be looking at what it means, why someone wrote a poem about a mouse, who Robert Burns was, and why John Steinbeck wrote a book with this title.
The full quote is “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley”. Or to translate, the best laid plans of mice and men can still go wrong.
No matter how well you plan, there is no guarantee of success.
By the way “Gang aft-a-gley” means “goes wrong”.
Who was he?
In England, we have Shakespeare. But in Scotland, they have Robert Burns.
Robert Burns was from a small town called “Ayr”. He even wrote a poem about it.
“Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses, For honest men and bonny lasses”.
“Old Ayr, no town is better. For honest men and beautiful women”.
In his day, poetry was seen as something for the upper classes, but much like Shakespeare did with the theatre, Robbie Burns brought poetry to the masses.
Within Burns’ poems, he would often explore big ideas while talking about small subjects.
To a mouse
The poem “to a mouse” was written by one of the most famous poets of all time, Robert Burns. In this poem, a mouse has spent a lot of time making a nest, and Robbie destroys it while ploughing his field.
The purpose of the poem is to apologise to a mouse. Robbie understands that this mouse has put a lot of time and effort into his nest, and he had it destroyed by the farmer who had to plough his field.
In this poem, the poet is feeling guilty about ruining all the hard work of the mouse and wants to make clear that he’s sorry for everything he’s done.
Why write a poem to a mouse?
For people who aren’t very keen on poetry, it might seem strange that somebody would write a poem to a mouse. After all, it’s not as if the mouse is going to write back saying “Thanks for the poem. I forgive you”.
But with poems, you always need to read between the lines, and understand what the poet is saying isn’t what they literally mean.
This poem isn’t so much about the mouse itself, it’s more about the fact that sometimes, no matter how well you plan something, it can be taken away and destroyed in a matter of minutes.
Why compare mice to people?
Poets are some of the strangest people you will ever meet. But believe me when I say there is usually a method to the madness.
I’m sure that many will be wondering why Burns would use a mouse to talk about people. Why did he choose that metaphor?
The fact is that human beings are animals too. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a mouse, a farmer, or a king, life is filled with shit.
We’re not better than the animals, we all have to get through this life. And no matter who you are, there will be times when your hard work doesn’t pay off.
Burns vs the Bard
Earlier, I described Robert Burns of “The Scottish Shakespeare”. Now, let me be clear, both of these men are geniuses. But I think it’s going to be useful to compare the two of them because I believe that great minds don’t think alike.
Let’s start with the Bard. First of all, he was English.
His stories would either be talking about events that happened in the past or about mythical creatures such as swamp monsters or witches.
Many of Shakespeare stories will have been story-based.
Robert Burns, on the other hand, was Scottish. His stories were more relatable and down to Earth. The characters in his poems were the type of creatures you would see in everyday life. His work was more character-based.
Famous Burns quotes
During New Year’s Eve, I’m sure many of you will like to sing “Auld Lang Syne”. This phrase means “the old days”, and it’s a poem by Robbie Burns.
We also have the classic “Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses, For honest men and bonny lasses” from earlier.
“But to see her was to love her” is excellent to use in romantic situations.
And “A set o’ dull, conceited hashes, Confuse their brains in college-classes!” was his criticism of the education system.
Of Mice and Men
I’m sure that some of you reading this will be aware of the book “Of mice and men”. But if you didn’t learn about it in school, let me tell you more about what it’s all about.
The story takes place during the great depression. And our two main characters “George and Lennie” don’t have a lot of money, they’re working on a farm to make ends meet.
But they have a dream that one day, they can afford their own house—a big house with a beautiful garden. But Lennie has a mental disorder, and he often finds himself getting into a lot of trouble.
Towards the end of the book, Lennie accidentally ends up killing the daughter-in-law of the guy who owns the farm they’re working on. And George and Lennie have no choice but to flee.
Knowing that he will never get the house with Lennie in the way, George puts a bullet in the back of his head.
Importance of the book
If you’re wondering why your English teacher ever made you read that book. Let me explain.
That book goes to show what life was like at the time far better than any non-fiction book ever could. Whilst a non-fiction book can tell you about the numbers, the only way you can get a feel for what it was like emotionally at the time is to read this book.
You’ll end up getting attached to the characters and feeling sorry for everything they’ve had to go through.
But it’s not just the financial aspects of the characters Steinbeck explores. He also looks at how society viewed women, working-class people, and black people.
Plus, the theme of friendship and hope is heavy throughout the novella.
No non-fiction book about the great depression will ever be able to do what Steinbeck has done.
Why that title?
Now, there is a question to bring up here.
Why did Steinbeck give his book this title?
After all, Steinbeck was American, and Robbie Burns was Scottish. So it doesn’t make much sense for an American author to name his book after a phrase from a Scottish Poem.
But in the book, George has plans to one day own his own house. Just like that mouse had plans to have his nest where he would raise his young.
He spent his whole life working hard to be able to afford his own house, just as the mouse had spent all day building the nest.
But just as the mouse had everything taken away from him in one moment, the same happened when Lennie killed the girl.
Both George and the mouse had a plan that they had always dreamed of and worked incredibly hard for, only to have it all stripped from them.
How the quote “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men” help us?
Such a quote can help us during certain times in our life.
I’m sure that most of us have been in situations where we’ve worked insanely hard, but none of our hard work has paid off. And it makes us feel like there was no point in putting in all of that effort.
This is particularly true during the lockdown. I’m sure many of us had grand plans for 2020 that were never able to happen.
Best is a word with a rather interesting etymology.
The word “Best” is from the Old English “Beste” which meant what it does today, of the highest quality”. But “Beste” comes from the Proto-Germanic “Bat”. Nothing at all to do with the animal, it means in the most excellent manner.
I know that’s a bit of a tangent, but it’s still quite interesting to learn about.
Alternatives to The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men
“The best laid plans of mice and men” isn’t what most of us will say to ourselves when our hard work ends up being for nothing. Most of you will be more likely to say one of the following.
“Shit Happens” is short and simple, and directly to the point.
“All for nothing” is the most literal way of saying what has just happened to you.
The term “it is what is is” has become more popular thanks to the TV show Love Island. It might sound like a nothing phrase, but what it means is “there’s nothing you can do, so don’t worry”.
“The best laid plans of mice and men” is from a Robert Burns poem about a mouse who had his nest destroyed by the poet, who’s writing this poem to apologise to the mouse about what he’s done.
The poem was written by Robert Burns, the Scottish Shakespeare.
Just like how the mouse’s effort was all for nothing, the same can be said about George, the main character in the book “Of Mice and Men”.