Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Literal Poetry Surprise, featuring Robert Burns!

Scene: I am sitting in my favourite cafe with a mango smoothie* and my notebook, watching the Ponsonby traffic and raging relentless battle against plot bunnies.

At a table across the other side of the cafe, I see a strange old man with jagged wrinkles and crumpled clothes. He has a notebook too. He glances at me so fast I almost convince myself he didn't. He picks up his notebook and starts shuffling across the cafe. I tell myself he's not coming over to me, but this doesn't work.

Old man: *shoves notebook in my face*

The notebook is full of scrawl worse than mine. I make out the word 'mice'.

Old man: *reads from notebook* Somethingmumblesomethingbestlaidplansofmiceandmenmumblemumblesomething!

A tiny drop of spittle flies out of his mouth and lands on the table in front of me.

Old man: *pauses for my response*

Me: *tries to remember where the mice and men line comes from* *fails* 

Me: It's... very nice.

Old man: Robert Burns! It's Robert Burns! *starts shuffling away*

Me: It's a great poem.

Old man: *looks pleased* *sits down at his table and hunches over notebook*

Me: *hunches over own notebook* *plans beginning and ending of plot bunny infested novel*


I've just looked up the poem. I didn't realise how very and extremely Scottish it is. Possibly the old man actually read me the original poem, painstakingly scrawled out by hand, only to have me not understand about 95% of it. I still don't understand 95% of it. It makes most sense when you read it out loud. If you'd like some translation, there's some here.

To a Mouse

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!

- Robert Burns

I keep wondering what drew the old man to this poem, whether there was some carefully laid plan in his own life that fell apart and led to him spouting other people's poetry at strangers in cafes, or whether he empathised with the foreboding fear of all unknown things to come. Or whether he just liked the sound it made.

*Usually, this would be an enormous latte. But I'm hardly drinking any coffee at the moment. This gets italics because usually - well, usually I am a coffee fiend. But there are reasons.

No comments: