Although Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse" was written over two hundred years ago and it contains language that the average reader today might stumble over, it's a simple poem if read carefully and possibly slowly by the reader. On the simplest level, Burns is trying to assure this mouse that he is not going to harm it and that he feels sorry for the poor mouse who has to survive in the cold winter because of the actions of humans. Possibly the best way to look at this poem and to understand this poem is to look at it stanza-by-stanza.
The first stanza reads, "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!" In this stanza, Burns tells the mouse not to be afraid and assures the mouse that he is not going to chase and kill it. His use of "murd'ring" gets the point across that Burns does not feel that this creature deserves to die.
In the second stanza, Burns says, "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!" In the first few lines, Burns is apologizing for man's actions even going as far as saying that man has "broken Nature's social." He then calls the "An' fellow-mortal," giving it almost human qualities.
The third stanza says, "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!" In this stanza, Burns is telling the mouse that its request that it be able to live is a small request and that he understands that sometimes the mouse will have to steal to make this request possible.
"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!" Those are the words of the fourth stanza. In this stanza, Burns talks about how sad it is that the mouse's house has been destroyed when it is so cold outside. The December winds are "ensuin," making it difficult for the mouse to even stay alive.
In the fifth stanza, Burns continues to show sympathy for the mouse's winter plight. Burns says, "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." He says that the mouse saw the fields were "bare an' wast (waste)" and just came inside to seek some shelter. The mouse was cozy in its home until its home was destroyed.
The sixth stanza talks about all the hard work the mouse went through to survive for the winter. This stanza says, "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!" The mouse worked hard and then was "turn'd out" for all it's troubles. Then it had to survive the cold of winter on its own.
The second to last stanza reads, " 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!" In this stanza, Burns compares the actions of man to those of mice. He says that the most laid schemes of both mice and men often go wrong and leave us nothing but "grief an' pain" instead of the promised joy. No matter how hard each of us works, in the end it may only bring us pain, just as it had brought this mouse pain
"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!" Those are the final lines of Burns' poem. He says that despite all that the mouse has gone through, it is more blessed than he (meaning Burns). The present is the only thing the mouse to worry about, but Burns has to look to the future, a future he fears.
In the end, this is really a poem about one man seeing a mouse, feeling sorry for the mouse, and seeing how the mouse isn't all that different from humans. Burns felt sorry for a creature that most of us kill or as he would say, "murd'r" without much thought. This poem shows a compassion and understanding of other creatures that many of us may never see or feel.