An analysis and comparison of the treatment of rural life in Wordsworth’s "Michael: A Pastoral Poem" and Robert Burns "To a mouse"

Essay, 2014

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7



In the following essay the presentation of the rural life in William Wordsworth's 'Michael: A Pastoral Poem' and in Robert Burns' 'To a mouse' shall be analyzed and compared. During the close examination of the poems at hand it will be considered whether Burns actually wrote a Pastoral since Burns monologue towards a mouse is sensible and melancholic but does not explicitly meet the definition of a pastoral. The pastoral poem in general concerns with a shepherd’s lifestyle with special focus to the natural surroundings and their ascendancy for the individual's attitude towards life. The poet engages in ideas about innocence and 'the incidentals of pastoral become the guardians of his soul'1 in a most interesting way. While ultimately many poets have written poetry of pastoral nature it was treated rather as a mode than as a genre and allowed for considerable playfulness and ingenuity. (Fairer, p. 79) Thanks to said malleability the pastoral, although its ideals have to a certain extend been deflated by the use of extensive irony and satire, could persist and be formed anew. Wordsworth's poem serves as a remarkable example of such irony and due to the greater length of ‘Michael: A Pastoral Poem' the focus will naturally be put there yet both shall be dealt with in sufficient length. Wordsworth role as a narrator and perceivable character corresponds with Fairer's assessment of the poet’s role in pastoral poems. According to Fairer 'the poet is self-consciously listening to his own bland rhetoric before the final rueful comment emerges – conclusive, yet almost in parenthesis, as if he is turning away from the scene.' (p. 79) Although it may be argued that 'self-consciously' can easily be misunderstood in that the poet overestimates his own importance, it also highlights the poet’s role as the presenter of critical thought and initiator of discourse. Moreover, pastoral writing has defined the scope of living in town and living in the countryside. However, the descriptions of poetry and the actual living conditions in rural ambiance must not be confused. According to Goodridge great caution needs to 'be exercised in extrapolating social history from literature, especially from the most mystifying of literary forms, poetry.'2 Subsequently, the notion of the pastoral, thus the presentation of rural life differs vastly amongst poets which raises the need for close examination of the topic.

Analysis and comparison

Robert Burns 'To a mouse' from 1785 is written in Scots which makes it hard for non-native speakers to understand and analyze the poem. Subsequently a translation of the quotations used in the consequent analysis shall be included to the footnotes in an attempt to debilitate this disadvantage, if necessary. 'To a Mouse' addresses the suffering of hunger and cold in the form of a monologue which is directed to a mouse. The very nature of the poem is shown by the narrator who is concerned with assumed emotion and problems of a mouse; melancholy and solitude. The narrator does not make reference to human beings aside from himself except when he apologizes to the mouse that 'man's dominion/ Has broken Nature's social union'.3 The narrator's sensibility and empathy towards the mouse and its living conditions alongside the lack of humane social interaction in the poem emphasises the notion of solitude. The feeling of solitude is vitally important for the presentations of the pastoral at hand. Wordsworth implements the feeling of being alone in his poem as well and does it thoroughly. 'No habitation can be seen; but they/ Who journey thither find themselves alone/ ... It is in truth an utter solitude;'4 The feeling of solitude is brought to a peek when the shepherd’s home is described as a ' cottage on a plot of rising ground' which stands 'single, with large prospect, north and south,'. (ll. 131-132) Wordsworth's notion of solitude is not a depressing one. Throughout his poem he connects loneliness to the beautiful landscapes and presents it as a natural condition in the life of a shepherd. (ll. 5, 12, 25, 195) Only when the shepherd’s son Luke joins his father in his daily work the beauty of nature is shared, since his wife is one 'Whose heart was in her house;' and is hereby excluded from the shepherds outside work. (ll. 82) Both poems bring together solitude and nature, be it a mouse or a landscape, and exploit it in order to offer an approach to the Pastoral which can arguably be identified as Romantic. Moreover, the poems become more appealing to readers. According to Goodridge the “Pastoral is a manifestation of an apparently universal, pre-conscious, human desire for an ideal and simple world.” (p. 3) By aid of this quotation it becomes clear why the Pastoral could persist and be used as a mode by numerous writers over a very long time. (Fairer, p. 79)

Leaving behind solitude the following passage shall be concerned with togetherness in the largest sense. The speaker in Burns' poem clearly allies with the mouse as seen by the choice of words in the second stanza, when he apologizes for the damage inflicted on nature by humankind. The narrator refers to himself as 'earth born companion/ An' fellow mortal!'. (ll. 11-12) This way of presenting the similarities between the two highlights the narrator's psychological backdrop. He considers the mouse to have the same right to live as he has and willingly sacrifices a small amount of his source of income to the small animal and is satisfied by the mere action of doing good.

- 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.5

These lines indicate the speaker's emphatic character and build the groundwork for the next stanza in which the mouse is pitied for being exposed to the weather in the cold season, due to the accidental destruction of its home. (ll. 19-26) In stark contrast to the exposure to harm caused by nature in Burns' poem, it is civilisation which causes harm in 'Michael: A Pastoral Poem'. Michael has to account for unforeseen circumstances which have befallen his brother, by paying his debts. (l. 215) Since Michael does not have enough money to settle the matter, he would have to sell half the land he owns which “At the first hearing, for a moment took/ More hope out of his life than he supposed/ That any old man ever could have lost.” (ll. 218-221) Since he cannot bear the thought of his land passing into the hands of a stranger he arranges for Luke to deal which the problems in the city instead of a sending money to even out his brothers’ issues. (ll. 244, 250) So, while man and mouse get together in 'To a Mouse' when confronted with a bad situation, the family in Wordsworth's poem needs to separate in order to deal with issues broad upon them by civilization.

'To a Mouse' remarks the hopelessness of the mouse's situation over the length of three stanzas and describes all the disadvantages a homeless mouse has to face in winter. (ll. 19, 26, 30)

- Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
- But house or hald,
- To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
- An' cranreuch cauld.6


1 David Fairer. English Poetry of the Eigtheenth Century: 1700-1789. London: Pearson Education Limited, 2003. p. 79

2 John Goodridge. Rural Life in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. p. 91

3 Robert Burns. To A Mouse, On Turning Her Nest With The Plough. 1785. Burns Country. Online. ll. 7- 8 []

4 Charles W. Eliot. ed. English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald. Vol. XLI. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. New York: P.F. Collier & Son;, 2001.[] ll. 9-13

5 “I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal; What then? Poor little beast, you must live! An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves Is a small request; I will get a blessing with what is left, And never miss it.” ll. 13-19

6 “Now you are turned out, for all your trouble, Without house or holding, To endure the winter's sleety dribble, And hoar-frost cold.” ll. 33-36

Excerpt out of 10 pages


An analysis and comparison of the treatment of rural life in Wordsworth’s "Michael: A Pastoral Poem" and Robert Burns "To a mouse"
University of Stirling  (Literature and Languages)
British Romanticism 1780 - 1832
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ISBN (eBook)
British Romanticism, rural life, wordsworth, Michael - A pastoral poem
Quote paper
M. A., M. Ed. Felix Krenke (Author), 2014, An analysis and comparison of the treatment of rural life in Wordsworth’s "Michael: A Pastoral Poem" and Robert Burns "To a mouse", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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