The tone in the poem’s opening is of gentle reassurance. The speaker addresses the mouse directly, using the child-like diminutives
breastie, while attempting to defuse its fears -
O, whit a panic’s- and telling it directly it is in no danger.
Word choice like
wee and the onomatopoeia of
bickerin brattle emphasise the small-scale nature of what has happened. The mouse’s troubles might seem insignificant and temporary. Note also the use of feminine rhyme. This device can be put to various uses. Here it conveys gentleness, sustaining the tone of
The speaker’s apology for startling the mouse picks up the previous reassuring tone through the words,
I’m truly sorry. Although still apparently addressing the mouse, the stanza is more of a reflection on nature and human society. The speaker clearly disapproves of disruption of harmony in nature, caused here by himself, representing humanity. His careless destruction of the nest - showing
man’s dominion over nature
justifies the mouse’s fear of him.
Note that the expression
social union is also a reference to radical democratic associations that were springing up in the late 18th century, eager for political reform and social justice. This was a time when few people could vote and the poor had very few rights.
This stanza also introduces the note of empathy which will develop later. The shared poverty of man and mouse and of their common roots in the land are summed up in the description of himself as
thy poor, earth-born companion
The speaker shows that he does not begrudge the mouse a share of the harvest. Although the mouse does
thieve from him, the speaker accepts that survival is more important that social rules about property. The strong monosyllables in
thou maun live emphasise the absolute need for survival. Burns was making a radical point here about the redistribution of human wealth.