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The Best Laid Schemes . . . Gang Aft Agley January 5, 2012

Posted by nrhatch in Mindfulness, Poetry, Word Play, Writing & Writers.

Robbie Burns wrote this poem, To A Mouse, after disturbing the poor wee beastie’s winter home while plough~ing the field:

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,
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,
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!

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!

Wikipedia ~ Robbie Burns (in Public Domain)

Imagine that . . .

A fine Scottish laddie feeling less blessed than a mouse whose house is in ruin, exposed to the cruel winds of winter.


Because the wee beastie lives touched only by the NOW . . . without the distraction of backward glances and idle future fears.

For a more detailed discussion:  Robert Burns ~ To A Mouse

For the Standard English Translation: To A Mouse

Aah . . . that’s better!


1. 2e0mca - January 5, 2012

Ahh, but is that right… how do we know that the wee timorous beasties don’t do the same… ? Animals often do a lot of forward planning and I sometimes think it isn’t all instinct 🙂

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Do you think that animals “plan” for the future?

I expect that most animals live in the NOW, doing what needs to be done NOW (e.g., building a nest, gathering food, finding a mate). As a result of the DOING, they are ready for the “future” when it becomes the NOW.

It’s as if they are constantly asking:

What should I do NOW?
What should I do NOW?
What should I do NOW?

Because they are so present moment oriented . . . they are often exactly where they need to be when the future arrives.

2e0mca - January 5, 2012

I’m not sure Nancy… But I don’t think they’re quite as dumb as we Humans like to view them! Ironically, what you are protraying there sounds just like Human teenagers! 🙂

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

I don’t think animals are “dumb” (except in the sense of being “mute”) . . . far from it. But, unlike humans, I don’t think they are inclined to engage in “idle worry” . . . the “what ifs.”

Instead, they do what needs doing when it needs to be done. And then they take a catnap. 😉

2. William D'Andrea - January 5, 2012

Robert Burns was an exceptional writer indeed! He wrote in the Scottish dialect, with a very thick, Highland accent, that makes his words hard to understand at times; and yet the warmth come through.

I remember certain questions. Was Robert Burns two timing Annie Laurie Welton? Was she the daughter of Max Welton? Was Bobbie Burns involved with both Bonnie Banks and Bonnies Braes?

You have to be somewhat familiar with his poetry, to understand these questions.

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Och, the sun shines bright on Loch Lomand! 😎

3. Andra Watkins - January 5, 2012

A good reminder to behave more like a mouse. 🙂

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Or, at least, to spend our time more wisely . . . here, now, where the dance of life takes place.

4. Maggie - January 5, 2012

All that for a mouse… but the lesson is a good one!

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Indeed. What’s done is done . . . no sense crying over ploughed-over-houses.

5. Rufus' Food and Spirits Guide - January 5, 2012

I am nowhere near as eloquent to the squirrels in my attic.

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

I prefer that wee beasties stay outside . . . I’ve no room for bats in the belfry. 😉

6. spilledinkguy - January 5, 2012

Okay… I’ll admit it… the translation helped me out quite a bit. But I’m glad I checked it out (thanks for the assistance, Nancy)!

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

I thought about posting the translation instead of the original, but then “gang aft agley” disappears . . . and that’s my favorite bit (having heard it so many times from my great aunt in her finest Scottish brogue). 😉

7. granny1947 - January 5, 2012

I love this…poor mouse.

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

I agree. We are not the caretakers I would have chosen for the creatures of this world.

8. nuvofelt - January 5, 2012

You might think he wrote with a strong Scottish accent – but until you have heard this read by someone from Fraserburgh you’ve only heard it in ‘posh Scots’ 😉

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

I hear it in my great aunt’s lilting brogue. 😀

9. ceceliafutch - January 5, 2012

Ah, the lessons we learn from critters if we but pay attention; the mouse that’s blessed because only the present touches it! Rather powerful to think about!. Thanks for posting.

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Nature is a brilliant teacher, as it ebbs and flows, touched only by the NOW.

10. thirdhandart - January 5, 2012

So that’s where the saying, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” comes from. Great post with lots to think about!

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Exactly. This poem spawned that well known axiom, and probably prompted John Lennon to muse, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans.

11. sufilight - January 5, 2012

I like the lesson of the mouse! 🙂 My s/o and I observe the squirrels and an Intelligence is guiding them to stock up on peanuts for the winter, not that they are planning (read the comments). Creatures are more in alignment with the flow of nature because they are in the NOW, they are out of the way. Thanks for the lesson, I need reminders, reminders and more reminders. 🙂

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Maybe they “plan” . . . but it seems more likely that they are just IN THE FLOW of life, doing what comes naturally.

The exhuberance of a dog when he hears his leash is an example of the JOY we feel when we don’t let the PAST or the FUTURE intrude on the NOW.

12. barb19 - January 5, 2012

Animals are such good teachers and we can always learn something new from them.
I don’t think they plan like us humans – they instinctively know what to do NOW to see them through bad times or hard winters, which, when it happens, will be the NOW to them. If you know what I mean!
I love Robbie Burns work

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Obviously, I’m more aware of how our cats interact with the world than I am with their “arch nemesis,” the mouse. 😉

Tigger wakes up . . . and gets up.
He gets our attention . . . and gets fed.
He eats . . . then decides to go outside.
He comes inside . . . and then he naps.

His actions all seem rather spontaneous (and, also, somewhat impatient, if we are too slow to do his bidding). ~ “I want to eat . . . NOW!” 😆

13. jannatwrites - January 5, 2012

I hadn’t seen this poem before (and like another commenter said, the translation helped me, too.)

I do agree that animals live in the now, but they also plan for the future (like stocking up on food.) But I don’t think they fret about whether to have seeds or acorns for dinner.

nrhatch - January 5, 2012

Squirrels never seem to remember where they bury their acorns. Come spring, most buried nuts are still in situ. Maybe that’s because squirrels are too busy raiding the bird feeder all winter.

They are such “opportunists.” 😉

14. Nancy Curteman - January 5, 2012

Animals may live in the now, but they have the big worry of finding food and avoiding predators.

nrhatch - January 6, 2012

I don’t believe that Robbie Burns wanted TO BE a mouse . . . he just wanted to learn TO BE. 😉

15. kateshrewsday - January 6, 2012

Fantastic post, Nancy: I recall so often feeling like this, but I’ve never heard anyone put it into words before. Now I shall potter off to read more Burns.

nrhatch - January 6, 2012

You may notice a dichotomy in his work ~ ebbing and flowing from “hope” to “despair.” Many believe that he suffered from manic depression during his life (another troubled artist?!) and that it peeked through his poems with some degree of regularity.

16. Tilly Bud - January 6, 2012

I had the recent privilege of hearing Burns quoted by a talented Scotsman. Sublime.

nrhatch - January 6, 2012

Sounds wonderful . . . especially when accompanied by a fine Scotch. Hold the Haggis!

17. Crowing Crone Joss - January 6, 2012

one of the joys of my life was listening to a Scotsman read this. Nothing like a Scottish Brogue reading Robbie Burns to stir the heart!

nrhatch - January 6, 2012

My grandfather (from Aberdeen) recited Robbie Burns to me through my young life. In later years, my great aunt (from Edinburgh) quoted from this poem. If I complained about things not working out the way I wished . . . I’d hear about the best laid schemes “gang aft agley.” 😉

18. sweetdaysundertheoaks - January 6, 2012

Being Scotch/Irish I gave the original a good try and then clicked on the translation 🙂 Enjoyed this post and comments!

nrhatch - January 6, 2012

A few of the stanzas are easy to grasp without resort to extensive translation. Others are “Greek” to me. 😉

19. jeanne - January 6, 2012

By the end of the first verse I was thinking…”Scottish…he must be Scottish”.

nrhatch - January 6, 2012

A Scottish bard, indeed. 😀

20. Booksphotographsandartwork - January 6, 2012

Then I guess I could say that my plans for a nap today, ok well a third one went gang aft agley!

nrhatch - January 6, 2012

You (and Granny!) know how to celebrate the Art of the Nap! 😉

21. bluebee - January 7, 2012

No beastly existential crisis for the wee beastie – lucky rodent 🙂

nrhatch - January 7, 2012

Robbie Burns: I cannae figure out the reason for existence.
Peer: Och, man! Go fer a walk. It’ll clear your head.

Burns walks, stumbles into a mouse, writes THIS poem, and resolves his existential crisis:

I write . . . so they can recite my words for the next 200 years!

22. eof737 - January 8, 2012

Something to be said for that… The less we look ahead, the more we see here now. The future is now. 😉

nrhatch - January 8, 2012

It’s a balance between setting goals for the future (loosely . . . with plenty of wiggle room) . . . and enjoying work on those goals today.

The best way to bolster our future is by giving our “all” to today.

23. Little Mouse | Booksphotographsandartwork's Blog - January 10, 2012

[…] Posted on January 10, 2012 | Leave a comment After reading Robert Burns, To A Mouse on Nancy’s blog I wanted to share this beautiful little card that I have had for some time […]

nrhatch - January 10, 2012

What a darling card, Linda!

It reminds me of the illustrations in Beatrix Potter books . . . just enough personification to make us relate to them as peers.

24. You Were Born To Succeed - January 13, 2012

So that’s where it comes from … “the best laid schemes ‘o mice an’ men gang aft agley.” Robert never could have dreamed how universal this little snippet in his whimsical declaration to a mouse has become. Thanks for posting this poem; I’ve never read it before.

nrhatch - January 13, 2012

It’s a pretty intriguing poem. If we treated all animals with loving kindness and compassion . . . imagine what they could teach us!

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