When my lovely wife Darla and I had some plans derailed recently, I was reminded of the words of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley.” What he meant was, they get messed up. Take that verse, for example. Burns started off well: “The best laid schemes of mice and men…” That phrase showed promise. We weren’t sure where he was going with it, but juxtaposing the mice with the men was enough to generate interest, and spin off a novel or two. Then his verse got sidetracked with gangs and gleys. I suppose his gang reference shouldn’t surprise us; he wouldn’t be the first poet involved in gang activity (Longfellow’s Gitche Gumee Boys spring to mind). But what’s this business of afting a-gley? “The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley.”
I’ve concluded he intentionally messed up the line to prove his point. The verse didn’t just pronounce that the best-laid schemes tend to go awry, it demonstrated it, by going awry. It’s kind of like onomatopoeia---you remember: the word used to identify the noise bees make actually sounds like the noise bees make. I think Burns was handing future generations a fresh figure of speech---let’s call it “gang-afting,” to add to metaphor, simile, alliteration, personification, etc. (If you’ve ever had to create a Match the Figure of Speech to its Name Quiz for an English class, you know that you can always use another figure of speech; if possible, you’d rather not resort to the use of Metonymy and Synecdoche). Burns gifted us with gang-afting: to start out with a good plan that gets royally messed up. I suspect there are other examples of it out there. We just didn’t know it because we weren’t looking for them, and we wouldn’t have known what to call them if we’d seen them. I could do a search of English literature and maybe come up with a few examples, but that would require time and effort, and alter my normal pattern. However, any reader who performs such a search will receive extra credit.
I’m more curious about how Burns determined that the best-laid schemes of mice go astray. We won’t give him any argument about men’s schemes, having watched a number of botched rocket launches (which were presumably planned by rocket scientists), but there seems to me to be no good reason to impugn the best-laid plans of mice. Granted, some schemes of mice go astray, unless those particular mice schemed to have their backs suddenly broken while they nibbled on a tiny glob of peanut butter or cheese. But I suspect that, among all the schemes those mice may have entertained for that particular evening---chewing into the box of rice in the pantry, eating the crumbs around the toaster, making the humans jump and scream, encouraging the Mrs. to try to make more mice---the plan to eat the food on that odd looking wooden contraption under the kitchen sink was not among the “best laid.” I would not want to be the reporter, interviewing the grieving mouse spouse on the following day, who suggested to her that the unfortunate events of the previous evening were the results of her hubby’s “best laid” scheme.
So the question remains, how did Burns determine that the best-laid schemes of mice go astray? According to his poem, a mouse made his nest in a field Burns subsequently plowed. Clearly, that nesting scheme went awry. But maybe nesting in that particular field wasn’t that mouse’s best-laid scheme.
I know what Tommy Pretty Boy Humphrey would say if I asked him:
“It’s called poetic license, you Doofus. He just said it because he liked the sound of it. He didn’t expect you to take it literally.”
To which I would answer: “And I suppose I should take literary advice from a guy whose last completed book was Horton Hears a Who?”
“Don’t knock it; it has drama, action and colorful illustrations, unlike a lot of sermons I hear from You-know-who. And don’t spoil the ending for me.”
“Sorry---my mistake. Then your last completed book must have been Horton Hatches the Egg.”
“The nice thing about Dr. Seuss books is they’re real books, Rusty. As opposed, for example, to what you call your Wry Bread book, which is not really a book, but just some electronic dots on a screen.”
“I hate to break it to you Pretty Boy, but even the words in your hardback Horton books are formed by dots on a page.”
“But it’s a real page in a real book, written by a real doctor, not some fake pastor."
“I don’t know what I was thinking when I let you into my story. I was trying to have an intelligent conversation with my readers, using words like juxtaposing and onomatopoeia, and now you and Horton have us completely off track. You’ve totally messed up everything.”
“You mean you’ve been gang-afted.”
“What did you say?”
"I said you’ve been gang-afted.”
“Where did you hear that term? I haven’t even published my story on it yet.”
“It’s a Figure of Speech. It refers to a plan that starts off well but then unexpectedly unravels."
"Yes, I know what it is, but I can’t believe that you know what it is.”
“It’s like in Horton Hatches the Egg; Lazy Mayzie planned for Horton to sit on her egg through the worst weather while she relaxed in Palm Beach, and she expected to step in at the last moment and reclaim her egg as it was about to hatch. But her plans gang-afted when the baby bird that hatched looked just like a little Horton with wings.”
“Then there’s the Grinch, of course. He planned to destroy Christmas by stealing all the presents from Whoville, but his plan was gang-afted when he heard the Whos singing on Christmas morning, despite the missing presents."
“I see. Have you found any examples of it in your non-Seuss reading?”
“How about Humpty Dumpty? Everything was going fine for him. He was sitting on a wall. Then his plan gang-afted, and the next thing he knew, he and his plans were in pieces.”
“Let me try to explain this in terms you can understand. Have you reached the point in your Humpty Dumpty reading at which the king’s horses and men appear on the scene?”
“Yeah, it’s been several days since I read the account, but as I recall, they couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
“Well that’s how I feel about my story. Horton, Humpty and Humphrey have left it in pieces on the ground, and there’s no way anyone can put the thing back together.”
“If it’s any consolation, Rusty, hardly anybody reads what you write. Now if you threw in some action, some drama, some colorful illustrations and an occasional Grinch…”
From time to time, we all make plans that start out well, and then nosedive. But the Christian has the promise that “...all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Even an accident, a financial reversal, the loss of a job, a shocking diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one does not come to the believer apart from the sovereign plans of the one who “…works all things according to the counsel of His will.” (Ephesians 1:11)
Among the more astounding things Jesus said to His disciples was this:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)
What an amazing declaration. A little bird so insignificant to men that two of them could be bought with a copper coin, does not fall to the ground apart from our Father’s will? Jesus’ point was clearly this: if even the creatures we consider insignificant don’t live and move beyond God’s providential plan, then surely God’s children, created in His image, redeemed through the sacrifice of His Son, and of intense interest to the Lord, do not operate outside of God’s sovereign oversight. This should give the believer immense comfort.
It’s true that, from our perspective, our best-laid plans may be ruined by something as sudden as an ill-advised dash on Main Street, or an uncontrolled crash on Wall Street, but from God’s perspective, all things are working together for our ultimate good. Our plans may “gang aft a-gley,” but God’s plans never could, and never will. That’s good news even for sparrows, mice, elephants, Grinches, and egg-shaped people that sit on walls for no apparent reason.