Week 13: The Best-Laid Schemes . . .

Burns’s “To a Mouse” (1785) is one of those poems so culturally ubiquitous – in Scotland anyway – that its lines have become verbal tics or pieces of linguistic shorthand like Chinese Chengyu.  I was reflecting on this while mentally composing the present blog post.  A little less than a month ago The Historian and I moved into a new (or, rather, old) house with all the predictable chaos that involves, not least of which has been the collapse of my existing schedule for book completion.  The phrase which naturally came to mind was that most famous of distychs from “To a Mouse”: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men | Gang aft agley”.

In context that was pretty disastrous (for the mouse, at least), as the subsequent lines – “An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain, | For promis’d joy!” – make clear.  In the case of the book project, it’s perhaps not so bad as all that.  Agley (or aglee) simply means asquint or awry or somewhat oblique in Scots, though with the figurative meaning of something in error or off the mark, and comes from the verb gley, to squint, but also to look with one eye, to take aim.  While the house move has, indeed, meant that my book completion plans have gone agley, I think I’ve managed to nonetheless gley once again at the target of manuscript submission and come up with a revised schedule that’s still workable (more workable than my attempts at linguistic punning, to be sure).

An adjustment of plans was needed in any case as earlier in the year I’d become aware that I probably didn’t need a separate chapter on one topic (Roman antiquities, which have ended up being discussed in the context of various other chapters), but did most definitely need a chapter I hadn’t originally intended (one specifically on the work of Thomas Innes).  So the next three weeks will see me writing this latter chapter.  It shouldn’t be too hard, given that Innes has figured largely in my research for a number of years now, and when it’s finished only the introduction and conclusion will remain to be written.

In other words, if at first you go agley, gley, gley again!

The header image is a photograph of Kenny Hunter’s seven foot tall bronze mouse statue at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

One thought on “Week 13: The Best-Laid Schemes . . .

  1. Patrick Scott says:

    As someone himself way off schedule on a book project, I admire your adroit linguistic recuperation. By coincidence, this afternoon I was going through Burns’s own much-expanded glossary to the Edinburgh edition (1787):
    Agley, off the right line, wrong.
    Gley, a squint; to squint, Agley, off at a side, wrong.

    Like

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