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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

31 December 2020

Malcolm Guite finds comfort and hope in a wee mouse, and a glass of malt

BY CUSTOM in this household, at the turn of the year I raise a glass of single malt and begin a recitation of Robert Burns. My recitation has been known to go on for some time — though not for so long as when my mother was reciting; for she seemed to have all of Burns’s poetry at her command. She, alas, was one of the many great souls, the “flowers of the forest”, whom 2020 carried away. But this year I will still drink a dram for her and for all the others whom we have loved and lost, “lest auld acquaintance be forgot”. And this year, the “cup of kindness” is kinder still; for it is sweetened and made tender by memory and compassion.

But it is not so much “Auld lang syne” as another poem of Burns which is likely to be on our lips as 2020 slips into 2021, and that poem is, of course, “To a Mouse, on turning up her nest with a plough”. Burns’s vivid picture of the mouse — the “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie”, starting away with her “‘wee bit housie, too, in ruin! It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!” — is an apt enough image of what this last year has done to most of us.

And, in the past few weeks especially, when the sudden sweeping new restrictions have come crashing through our best endeavours and broken up dreams and plans as cruelly and suddenly as the coulter in Burns’s poem:

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
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.

No wonder so many, who may not have known the rest of the poem, have reached feelingly for its most famous phrase and stanza:

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!

And yet that little field mouse, timorous and cowering though she may have been, lived on. For Burns not only memorialised her: he spared her! I imagine that her descendants are thriving in Kilmarnock, now. And we, too, have found, and will find, ways to scuttle away from Covid’s cruel coulter and build our nests again. And we have something more than the mouse had, by way of comfort and hope.

I reflected, as I poured another dram of that fine single malt, that in Gaelic the word “whisky” means “water of life”. And it is certainly a spirit to raise our spirits; but we have something even better that that. For we may turn, when we please, from the spirituous to the spiritual, from the “water of life” to the fountain of life hiimself, in whom life is also light — a light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness has never overcome. I’ll drink to that.

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