meaning and origin of the phrase ‘of mice and men’

The words man and mouse have been used in alliterative association in:

neither man nor mouse, to mean not a living creature, great or small,

mouse and man, or mice and men, to mean every living thing.

The first known user of neither man nor mouse was the poet and writing-master John Davies ‘of Hereford’ (1565?-1618) in The Scourge of Folly (1611):

Against Flaccus the great House-keeper.
Flaccus, they say, doth keepe too great an house;
They say but sooth herein, his house is so:
But he therein keepes neither man nor mouse,
For there is meate for neither: so, they go
From him, though he doth keepe a house too great;
But it he keepes without myce, men or meat.

In Apollo shrouing composed for the schollars of the free-schoole of Hadleigh in Suffolke. And acted by them on Shrouetuesday, being the sixt of February, 1626, William Hawkins (died 1637) wrote:

– Præco: O yez.
– Drudo: He may cry O yez till his belly burst. But, for ought I see, heer’s no body to heare him.
– Lawriger: No body? That’s none of our fault. All may come if they will, Apollo keepes open sessions. Looke Præco, canst thou see no audience?
– Præco: Nor man, nor mouse.

The English poet Samuel Cobb (baptised 1675-died 1713) used the metaphor in The Mouse-Trap, a translation published in 1712 of a poem in Latin by E. Holdsworth (1684-1746):

So all are serv’d by Fates, who weave the Doom
Of Mice and Men upon one common Loom!

But it was the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) who popularised the metaphor in To a Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785:

Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ wast,
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.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are 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!

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!


Tiny, sleek, cowering, fearful mouse,
O, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty,
With pattering noises!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With my murdering spade!

I’m truly sorry that my world,
Has broken into your world,
And justifies your ill opinion of men,
Which makes you startle
At me, you poor, earth-born companion,
And fellow mortal!

I doubt not that at times you may steal;
What then? poor little animal, you must live!
An occasional ear of corn out of twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I’ll be blest with the rest of the corn,
And never miss the ear you took!

Your tiny house, too, in ruin!
Its fragile walls the winds are strewing!
And nothing, now, to build a new one,
Out of densely growing grass!
And bleak December’s winds are following,
Both harsh and keen!

You saw the fields were bare and desolate,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cosy here, beneath the wind,
You thought to dwell—
Till crash! the cruel ploughshare passed
Right through your cell.

That little heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Of house and home,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoarfrost cold!

But, Mousie, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often astray,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blest, compared with me
The present only touches you:
But, Oh! I backward cast my eye.
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

Of Mice and Men, the title of the 1937 novella by the American author John Steinbeck (1902-68), refers to this poem. Although it deliberately misses out the end of the stanza, “Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!”, this is virtually the whole story: the shattered dream, the grief and pain instead of the fulfilment. Steinbeck has also very cleverly kept to the theme of the poem, as his novella, like The Grapes of Wrath (1939), is a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of the migrant agricultural workers of California.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.