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Introduction -- Contents -- Extracts -- About the Author

The Best of Robert Burns in English
By William Curran

This page contains examples of Burns' shorter poems which illustrate the breadth of his perceptions.


  1. To a Mouse
  2. The Banks of Doon
  3. To A Haggis
  4. Bess and Her Spinning Wheel

To a Mouse

(Whilst ploughing on a November day, Burns ruined the nest of a field mouse. He ponders why the creature runs away in such terror)

Oh, tiny timorous forlorn beast,
Oh why the panic in your breast ?
You need not dart away in haste
To some corn-rick
I'd never run and chase thee,
With murdering stick.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
And fellow mortal.

I do not doubt you have to thieve;
What then? Poor beastie you must live;
One ear of corn that's scarcely missed
Is small enough:
I'll share with you all this year's grist,
Without rebuff.

Thy wee bit housie too in ruin,
Its fragile walls the winds have strewn,
And you've nothing new to build a new one,
Of grasses green;
And bleak December winds ensuing,
Both cold and keen.

You saw the fields laid bare and waste,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cosy there beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash; the cruel ploughman crushed
Thy little cell.

Your wee bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Had cost thee many a weary nibble.
Now you're turned out for all thy trouble
Of house and home
To bear the winter's sleety drizzle,
And hoar frost cold.

But, mousie, thou art not alane,
In proving foresight may be in vain,
The best laid schemes of mice and men,
Go oft astray,
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
To rend our day.

Still thou art blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches thee,
But, oh, I backward cast my eye
On prospects drear,
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear.

The Banks of Doon

(This song tells of a tragic love affair - not one of the poet's. A respected young lady of rank had borne a child without the sanction of the Church; forsaken, she died of remorse)

Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon,
How can ye bloom so fresh and fair,
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
While I'm so weary, full of care ?
You'll break my heart thou warbling bird
That flitters through the flowering thorn,
You remind me of departed joys,
Departed - never to return.

You'll break my heart, thou bonny bird,
That sings beside thy mate,
For so I sat, and so I sang,
But knew not of my fate.
Oft did we roam by bonny Doon,
To see the rose and woodbine twine,
Where every bird sang of it's love,
And fondly so did I for mine.

With lightsome heart I pulled a rose,
So sweet upon it's thorny tree,
But my false lover stole my rose,
And ah! He left the thorn with me.
With lightsome heart I pulled a rose,
Upon a morn in June,
And so I flowered in the morn,
And so was ruined by noon.

To a Haggis

(Haggis is a wholesome savoury pudding, a mixture of mutton and offal. It is boiled and presented at table in a sheep's stomach)

All hail your honest rounded face,
Great chieftain of the pudding race;
Above them all you take your place,
Beef, tripe, or lamb:
You're worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

The groaning trencher there you fill,
Your sides are like a distant hill
Your pin would help to mend a mill,
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distil,
Like amber bead.

His knife the rustic goodman wipes,
To cut you through with all his might,
Revealing your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, what a glorious sight,
Warm, welcome, rich.

Then plate for plate they stretch and strive,
Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,
Till all the bloated stomachs by and by,
Are tight as drums.
The rustic goodman with a sigh,
His thanks he hums.

Let them that o'er his French ragout,
Or hotchpotch fit only for a sow,
Or fricassee that'll make you spew,
And with no wonder;
Look down with sneering scornful view,
On such a dinner.

Poor devil, see him eat his trash,
As feckless as a withered rush,
His spindly legs and good whip-lash,
His little feet
Through floods or over fields to dash,
O how unfit.

But, mark the rustic, haggis-fed;
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Grasp in his ample hands a flail
He'll make it whistle,
Stout legs and arms that never fail,
Proud as the thistle.

You powers that make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare.
Old Scotland wants no stinking ware,
That slops in dishes;
But if you grant her grateful prayer,
Give her a haggis.

Bess and Her Spinning Wheel

(Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content)

I'm happy with my spinning wheel,
And happy with my wool to reel,
From head to toes it clothes me fine,
And wraps so softly me and mine.
I settled down to sing and spin,
While low descends the summer sun,
Blest with content, and milk and meal,
I'm happy with my spinning wheel.

On every hand the brooklets wend,
Up to my cottage by the bend,
The scented birch and hawthorne white,
Across the pool their arms unite,
Alike to screen the birdie's nest,
And little fishes cooler rest:
The sun shines kindly where I dwell,
Where smoothly turns my spinning wheel.

On Lofty oaks the pigeons croon,
And echo out their doleful tune;
The linnets in the bushes raise
Sweet songs that rival other lays.
The crakes among the clover run,
The partridge whirring in the sun,
The swallows swooping for their meal,
Amuse me at my spinning wheel.

With small to sell and less to buy,
Above distress, below envy,
Oh who would leave this humble state,
For all the pride of all the great,
Amid their flaring, idle toys,
Amid their cumbrous noisy joys ?
Can they the peace and pleasure feel
Of Bessie at her spinning wheel ?

Introduction -- Contents -- Extracts -- About the Author

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