Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

The Best Laid Schemes Of Mice And Men

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 2, 2011

When someone starts with “the best laid plans of mice and men” and then lets the sentence trail off without finishing it, usually means that something that was to happen has taken an unexpected turn … sometimes for the better, but more often, for the bad.  How is it, though, that mice and men are lumped together in this phrase?

Back on July 31, 1940, reporter Jesse A. Linthicum of the Baltimore Sun newspaper wrote an article entitled “Sunlight On Sports” that began with:

The gent who wrote “the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley” must have been thinking of the fight game in general and Al Weill in particular.  Weill saw 1940 ushered in through rose-colored glasses. He had two world champions and two lending challengers in his stable.

Forty years earlier, on July 28, 1900, the following was reported in the New Zealand Observer, an illustrated weekly newspaper:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” which was well exemplified at the Harbour Board meeting on Tuesday.  For some time past — in fact, directly Chairman Witheford was returned from Auckland City — representations were made to him to return from the chairmanship.  Too much to do, and other suggestive reasons for retirement.  J.H. was on the point of taking the hint, but was prevailed upon to stand by his guns and finish the work he had commenced.  Upon his notifying at a meeting, called for the purpose, that he intended to retain the chairmanship, a certain little ‘syndicate’ fell back aghast.

And 40 years before that, on May 28, 1860 the New York Times ran an article entitled “Political Pandering” that included this in the article:

The fearful prospect so impressively presented by the eloquent Attorney-General of Col. FORNEY’s “bones whitening along with those of WILMOT on the shore of Black Republicanism,” when his character might have been comfortably black-ening under the sunshine of Presidential patronage, struck Mr. WEBSTER with dismay. Of course this catastrophe must be averted. “You merely wish FORNEY to sell you the key of his lips,” says WEBSTER in effect. “Well, that is satisfactory, only — how much will you give? The whole $80,000, or only a part of it?” The Attorney-General replied, unhesitatingly, “The whole of it” Now, mark the sequel, and lament with us afresh, how oft the best laid schemes of mice and men “do gang agley.”

The phrase is actually from poem by Robert Burns entitled “To a Mouse” which was written and published in 1786. It tells of how he, while ploughing a field, upturned a mouse’s nest and as a result, he penned an apology to the mouse that includes this verse:

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!

The poem is of course the source for the title of a novel written and published John Steinbeck in 1937, entitled  “Of Mice and Men.”

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