By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The best-laid schemes of mice and men’ is one of those literary quotations which have slipped free of their origins and taken on a whole new, proverbial meaning. This phrase has issued from the mouths of people who have doubtless never read the poem in which it initially appeared, and many readers of poetry may nevertheless be unaware of the phrase’s poetic origins.
So where did those ‘best-laid schemes of mice and men’ originate, and what is the meaning of this slice of wisdom?
‘The best-laid schemes of mice and men’: phrase meaning
The meaning of the phrase can be summarised, or paraphrased, as follows: however carefully you plan a particular undertaking, something nevertheless often goes wrong with it along the way.
So, another way of putting it would be to say that, the best-laid plans can nevertheless end up going awry when it comes to putting them into practice. Unexpected difficulties can arise, or the proverbial spanner can be thrown in the works, sometimes by outside forces.
‘The best-laid schemes of mice and men’: phrase origin
Many popular sayings which have attained ‘proverbial’ status are orphan statements: that is, they lack a known author who originated them. For this reason, many proverbs are simply attributed to ‘Anon.’; by ‘proverbial status’ we mean that the phrase or saying in question is often quoted in everyday speech as a piece of universal wisdom.
And ‘the best-laid schemes of mice and men’ is surely entitled to such an accolade. But its author is very much known, and we can confidently attribute the phrase to Scotland’s best-known poet.
The mark that Robert Burns (1759-96) has left on the English language, as well as Scottish culture, is considerable: every New Year’s Eve, millions of people around the world sing a song which he at least popularised, even if he didn’t actually write the words; while Bob Dylan called another of Burns’s poems his single biggest inspiration.
As if that isn’t enough, both a hat, the ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, and a ship, the Cutty Sark, were named in honour of a poem by Burns (the hero, Tam o’ Shanter, wears a hat which now bears his name, while the witch in the poem wears a short shirt, her ‘cutty sark’, which gave its name first to a tea clipper and then, in time, to a brand of whisky).
And another Burns poem, ‘To a Mouse’, provides the origin of ‘the best-laid schemes of mice and men’.
The full title of the poem is, in fact, ‘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.
The relevant stanza appears towards the end of the poem:
But, Mousie, thou art 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 other words, both mice and men often find that their plans are thwarted by that fell meddler, fate. The ‘joy’ were thought we were ‘promis’d’ is replaced by ‘grief an’ pain’. (To reflect the more colloquial way Burns himself talked, he uses plenty o’ contractions in his poetry; note how the phrase is actually ‘best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men’ in Burns’s poem.)
The poet goes on, continuing to address the poor mouse he has made homeless:
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!
The poet reflects that, on balance, the mouse is better-off than the man. For humans are capable of remembering past ‘schemes’ that also went awry, and so store up a lifetime of ‘prospects drear’, or thwarted hopes.
Not only that, but he can fret and fear that the same will happen again in the future to whatever plans or dreams he nurtures and entertains next. Of ‘the best-laid schemes of mice and men’, those of men are worse, he concludes.
Burns’s poem inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, supposedly because the two principal characters in Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George, represent the ‘mouse’ and the ‘man’ respectively: the slow-witted Lennie is an unthinking creature like the ‘beastie’ in Burns’s poem, while George, like the poet, has the gift of memory and foresight – for all the good it does him.