Thursday, 22 May 2014

Robert Burns on mice and men

Could anyone help me with the pronunciation of a line in R. Burns' poem To a Mouse?

This is the stanza:
credit: Stephen M Barnett
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!
 I've highlighted the line in question. The rhyme scheme, it seems, is
a a b c a c, so "agley" should rhyme with "joy" or am I wrong here? What then is the pron of "agley"? A transcription of the whole line would be appreciated.


  1. əˈɡleɪ -ˈɡlaɪ, -ˈɡliː (LPD 2000). So ˈɡæŋ ˈɑːft əˈɡleɪ ? The rhyme scheme seems to have ganged agley! (One could also regard “joy” as an unpacked modernized version of an original, encrypted, “j.”).

  2. Yes, əˈɡleɪ, I should say (no rhyme intended). And simply an impure rhyme with "joy", not uncommon in poetry.

  3. If one accepts the possibility of an impure rhyme, then /əˈɡleɪ/ is perfectly acceptable. I had looked it up in the LPD, but had thought there was a Scottish pron which rhymes with 'joy'.
    My thanks to Emilio and Lipman!

  4. Burns Not Guilty of “Impure” Rhyme

    A Manual of Modern Scots by Wm Grant & James M. Dixon 1921 p.337
    has the following IPA transcription:

    ðə bɛst leid skimz o məis ən mɛn
    gɑŋ ɑft əgləi
    ənd liː ᴧs noxt bᴧt grif ən pen
    fɔr promɪst ʤəi

  5. You were on the right track, Petr! (And my encrypted joy scheme has definitely ganged agley, thanks to Wm Grant & James M. Dixon).