By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Are there really that many classic poems about mice, rats, and other rodents? Are there enough to compile a definitive ‘top ten’ list of the best mouse poems? We think so – and we hope the following collection of classic rodent poems supports such a claim. From classic children’s poems to satirical poems to poems about grief, these poems all use mice and other rodents to create great and memorable poetry.
1. Robert Henryson, ‘The Paddock and the Mouse’.
Once on a time, as Aesop did report,
A little Mouse came to a riverside.
She could not wade, her legs they were so short;
She could not swim; she had no horse to ride;
So she was forced, upon the bank, to bide.
Then to and fro, beside that river deep
She ran, and cried with many a plaintive peep …
Three centuries before Robert Burns would write his more famous poem about a mouse (see below), the fifteenth-century Scottish poet Robert Henryson wrote this, a verse translation of one of Aesop’s fables. It’s written in Middle Scots – the medieval Scots dialect – and tells of a mouse that wishes to cross a stream. A paddock (an old word for a frog) offers to help, with disastrous results. The version we’ve linked to above is a modernised translation of Henryson’s poem.
2. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Of the Mean and Sure Estate’.
My mother’s maids, when they did sew and spin,
They sang sometime a song of the field mouse,
That, for because her livelood was but thin,
Would needs go seek her townish sister’s house.
She thought herself endurèd too much pain;
The stormy blasts her cave so sore did souse
That when the furrows swimmèd with the rain,
She must lie cold and wet in sorry plight …
This poem by one of the greatest English poets of the early sixteenth century begins ‘My mother’s maids, when they did sew and spin’, and – like Henryson’s poem – is a verse retelling of one of Aesop’s fables, this time the tale of the country mouse and the town mouse. The story concerns a town mouse who goes to stay with his cousin, a mouse that lives in the country.
The country mouse likes the sound of living in the town, so goes to stay with the town mouse. But when she sees the bustle and danger of town life, the country mouse decides to go home to her simpler, safer existence.
3. Robert Burns, ‘To a Mouse’.
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a 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 …
Probably the most famous poem about a mouse ever written. The full title of this poem is ‘To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785’. That full title explains what the poem is about – and it was probably based on a real event, when Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest while ploughing a field.
4. Robert Browning, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’.
They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And eat the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats …
The story of the German piper who lures rats away from the town with his music dates from the Middle Ages, but it was the Victorian poet Robert Browning’s version that would become the definitive poetic telling in English. Okay, so the piper is a rat-catcher and we are dealing with a poem about rats rather than mice, but we couldn’t resist this classic rodent poem…
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘Grief is a Mouse’.
Grief is a Mouse—
And chooses Wainscot in the Breast
For His Shy House—
And baffles quest …
Although this Emily Dickinson poem explores a range of metaphors for grief, its opening analogy is to a mouse, which ‘chooses Wainscot in the Breast / For His Shy House’.
6. Christina Rossetti, ‘My Mouse’.
A Venus seems my Mouse
Come safe ashore from foaming seas,
Which in a small way & at ease
An Iris seems my Mouse,
Bright bow of that exhausted shower
Which made a world of sweet-herbs flower
And boughs …
This poem explores how greatness can reside in the very small: ‘A Venus seems my Mouse’, Rossetti tells us, ‘Which in a small way and at ease / Keeps house’. Supposedly written as a ‘thank you’ note, this is one of a number of classic mouse poems which Rossetti wrote, along with ‘The City Mouse and the Garden Mouse’ and ‘If a Mouse’.
7. Lewis Carroll, ‘The Mouse’s Tale’.
The title of this poem, which appeared in Carroll’s 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a pun, since the poem resembles the shape of a mouse’s tail. It is one of the most famous examples of concrete poetry in English – i.e. where the words are arranged on the page to resemble the shape of an object.
8. Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’.
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies …
This poem by one of the First World War’s leading war poets might be viewed as war poetry’s answer to John Donne’s ‘The Flea’ – because the rat which is so friendly towards the English poet will also cross No Man’s Land and make friends with the German enemy. The rat, that ubiquitous feature of WWI imagery, here acts as a reminder of the English and Germans’ common humanity, even in times of war.
9. John Betjeman, ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’.
This 1954 poem gently mocks a certain class of person – here, fair-weather Christians who use the church when it suits them but are nowhere to be seen for most of the year. Betjeman uses animals to make his point, and it’s not hard to see why this has become one of Betjeman’s most popular poems – it appeals to people of all ages, and even those who miss the satire.
10. Theodore Roethke, ‘The Meadow Mouse’.
In this remarkably tender poem, Roethke (1908-63) describes his experience of finding and picking up a little baby meadow mouse and caring for it. He cradles it, takes it indoors, makes it a nest, and feeds it ‘five kinds of cheese’. But then the mouse disappears – leaving Roethke wondering what has happened to it, and where it went. A heart-breaking poem for anyone who has ever lost a pet.
Continue to explore the link between pets and poets with these classic cat poems and this pick of the best poems about dogs. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.