Humanity’s Relationship with the Natural World: A Comparison of The Book of Genesis and the Poetry of Robert Burns
When discussing the relationship between humanity and the wider natural world, the biblical work of the book of Genesis and Robert Burns’ adjoining poems To a Mouse and To a Louse arguably offer a possibly insight into the development of mankind – specifically its own opinion of its station in the world as a whole entity. Coincidentally, the discussion surrounding man’s relationship with the natural world largely hinges upon humanity’s own characteristic nature; in that there are some curious parallels between the presentation of God the Creator in the Old Testament of the Bible, and Burns’ portrayal of man in a newly emerging modern world. Greenstein contests that ‘we are none of us, even on our good days, God’ (p.1) and this contention – even in a secular sense – may be largely played into question when deciphering humanity’s seemingly superior regard for their own race above others in the animal kingdom. How much weight should be placed on the religious theory that ‘God created man in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27) and has humanity fundamentally distanced itself from the natural world entirely in its plight for increasing modernity in a newfound urban age? It is largely equitable to arguable that competition and the Darwinist ideology surrounding the prospect of the survival of the fittest is simultaneously both a flaw and a virtue in human nature, but it seems yet unclear whether this strife for excellence and perfection distances us from the natural world, or bring us closer to it.
When treating the biblical book of Genesis as a literary facet of its own, the theme of the natural world may simply be encapsulated in that what God has created. The narrative’s most curious and questionable paradox centers on the creation story itself – namely God’s choice of inspiration for the creation of humans themselves. The King James Version of the Holy Bible reads that ‘God created man in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27), which causes rather a problem when attempting to align a sort of ranking of world order to the animal kingdom and human beings. The phrasing of the narrative may be taken to indicate that human beings are to be the metaphorical gods of the earth when read out of the already definitive religious contexts of God’s superiority to all other things in the universe. One of the more defining characteristics of God in the Old Testament as a whole is largely his anthropomorphized nature in that when compared with his reincarnation as the perhaps one dimensionally pure and good Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament does largely align with more human characteristics in his more malevolent and dictatorial complex. This is most prominently shown in Chapter 6 of Genesis in which ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’ (Genesis 6:5) which ultimately topples the image of an omnipresent and all-knowing God who now seemingly holds the same ability for human error as we do. Another contradictory facet of God’s actions in the Old Testament and specifically the book of Genesis is his resolution to destroy humanity: ‘And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.’ (Genesis 6:7). Greenstein’s comment on this section of Genesis reveals that in his mind ‘God appears in Gen. 6:1- 4 as a parent who has either failed to set limits for one’s children or failed to exert control over one’s libidinous sons’ (p.12). This likening of God to the anthropomorphized and very human parent fundamentally may reveal a very flawed and human God of the Old Testament and if considering this God to be human-like, this serves as a convenient cornerstone when comparing the role of humanity in Robert Burns’ poem To a Mouse.
It is interesting to perform critical analysis when reading Burns’ poetry whilst treating the biblical book of Genesis as a lens as a means to draw parallels between humanity’s modernity of the urbanizing eighteenth century and the God of the Old Testament as he dictates over earth as a somewhat hyperbolically calamitous overlord. Both the book of Genesis and Burns’ poem To a Mouse arguably present an anthropomorphic sense of superiority to the natural world with God acting as the omnipotent creator of the universe alongside a flourishing and inventive human race acting as the main source of creation in their own separate microcosm with such innovations as Volta’s chemical battery and so on. The macrocosmic tone of the book of Genesis seems entirely absent when reading To a Mouse in which Burns’ persona concentrates their poetic narrative upon the ‘wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie’ (Burns), thus placing heavy emphasis and importance upon a seemingly insignificant facet of the universe and subsequently the natural world order. Burns’ poetic voice seemingly goes on to appeal specifically to humanity’s malevolent and volatile arrogance, which bode similar to that of the God we are presented with in the book of Genesis, in their abilities to modernize over that of the animal kingdom and the mouse’s skilful building on his nest, in that ‘man’s dominion has broken Nature’s social union’ (Burns). This links to the idea that humanity have perhaps somehow developed a sense of autonomy over the natural world, deeming themselves god-like figures in the realms of earth. Carol McGuirk’s interpretation in that ‘when Burns’ farmer spares the field mouse, he is acting as though there is only one field mouse in the world — his field mouse’ (p.510) arguably aligns with the contention that humanity has developed and perhaps forceable assumed a superior and godlike role from the Old Testament in the natural world – a God that seemingly arbitrarily destroys and creates at his own will; just as farmers may choose to destroy the nest of a mouse in one foul swoop of their plough.
The issue of urbanization and modernity of humanity and its seemingly unsuited correlation with that of the natural world’s harmony is yet another stark feature of Burns’ poem To a Mouse and this is fundamentally illustrated in the destruction of the mouse’s home at the unyielding and unsympathetic hands of the farmer’s plough. Perkins hypothesises that ‘increasing urbanization gradually removed a large part of the population from direct experience of farming…This promoted the nostalgic, sentimental, and idealized version of nature that we now call Romantic’ (p.2). In this instance one may align the act of farming to represent the entirety of the natural world and its many intricate and functional simplicities whilst simultaneously doing the same to the motif of the plough; in having it fundamentally represent urbanization and the beginnings of the later industrialization period of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries respectively. The poetic persona in To a Mouse does go on to label the modern instrument a ‘cruel coulter’ after it ‘blast[s]’ (Burns) through the ‘Mousie’ home. Burns’ persona in this poem seems to pine for the simpler days and the destruction of this ‘wee beastie’s’ (L.1) home has ultimately confirmed that not even technology can overcome ‘the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men’ (L.40). The poem seemingly shifts tone towards the end, and there are also hints at the equality between ‘mice and men’ with the poetic persona referring to the mouse as ‘an’ fellow mortal!’ and this idea is further explored in To a Louse in that – as a poet of the Romantic era – Burns attempts to discover a higher truth of meaning through the contemplation and analysis of the natural world. In this sense we may conclude that to Burns, industrialization and the dependence upon technology reduces humanity’s ability to find the truths about life and value of meaning.
What is interesting is that regardless of the interpretation that the poem To a Mouse somewhat goes about revealing man’s sense of superiority to the animal kingdom like that in the biblical book of Genesis, the idiomatic message of the poem on face value – to “take each day as it comes” and resist attempts to meticulously plan out our lives – is applied to both the farmer and the mouse. It must be noted for matters of contextual factors that – as David Perkins points out – ‘scientists and philosophers were narrowing the gap between humans and animals…Listening to young birds learn their songs, Locke concluded that they had perceptions and memories’ As the antithetical partner to To a Mouse, Burns’ poem To a Louse overtly offers more of an insight into the macrocosmic universe of the book of Genesis and humanity’s reduced preeminence to the animal kingdom as shown by Burns’ representation of the louse’s relationship with well-to-do young lady Jenny. Conversely to To a Mouse, this Burns poem is extremely overt in its satirical tone and style and this perhaps brings forward the idea that Burns means to make a sort of mockery at humanity’s superior opinion of itself when compared to the animal kingdom – particularly the gentry and middle classes. The fictitious louse in this poem fundamentally acts as a parasitical creature living in the bonnet of ‘sae fine a lady’ (L.10) and the poetic persona is for the majority of the poem largely distressed that this woman should be tainted with the louse as a infesting creature tarnishing all her finery. Of course the hyperbolic language to illustrate the persona’s exaggerated indignation is seen throughout with such incredulous outbursts as ‘but Miss’s fine Lunardi! Fye! / How daur ye do’t’ which acts as being somewhat comically ironic in the face of a message of equality between man and the natural world. The vulgar and diseased connotations of the parasitical louse contrasted with the prim and superior social stance of the woman further mocks humanity’s obsession with dignity as the leading species whilst also creating social commentary and criticizing the class conventions of eighteenth century Great Britain. When balancing and considering Burns’ two adjoining poems To a Mouse and To a Louse it seems equitable to argue that his poetry largely aims to display humanity in a more satirical manner. In hyperbolizing humanity’s consistent desire to maintain dignity and grow higher in rank Robert Burns shows that this ultimately puts them at odds with the natural world and this idea can be further bolstered by referring to the anthropomorphized God in his most human form. Through contextual details of urbanization in eighteenth century society, alongside God’s flawed error in creating facets of the universe that go against his will it may be conceded that it is largely humanity’s own internal nature to consistently compete with and outwit the natural world.
Burns, Robert, and Carol McGuirk. Robert Burns. London: Penguin Books, 1993. Print.
Greenstein, Edward L. “Presenting Genesis 1, Constructively And Deconstructively”. Prooftexts 21.1 (2001): 1-22. Web.
McGuirk, Carol. “Sentimental Encounter In Sterne, Mackenzie, And Burns”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 20.3 (1980): 505. Web.
Morris, David B. “Burns And Heteroglossia”. The Eighteenth Century 28.1 (1987): 3. Web.
Perkins, David. “Human Mouseness: Burns And Compassion For Animals”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42.1 (2000): 1-15. Print.
The Bible: Authorized King James Version,. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Print.
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