To A Louse
On seeing one on a Lady's bonnet at Church.
To a Louse features on my CD of Burns poems
The Greatest Poems in the World.
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Listen to a verse
Probably written late in 1785.
The use of Lunardi to denote a type of bonnet, then the very height of fashion, is an allusion to Vincenzo Lunardi who made several balloon flights in Scotland that year. Incidentally, the first manned flights in the British Isles were made in Sept 1784 by James Tytler, editor of the Encyplopaedia Britannica and a collaborator with Burns in the Scots Musical museum.
This is one of the most remarkable of Burns Poems
In the Louse perhaps better than anywhere else, he shows his ability to direct an apparently casual, occasional poem to a didactic conclusion, this conclusion expressed in the simplest of qualities of a country proverb.
The poem is alive with bright descriptive touches and an all-embracing humour.
The opening with its exclamatory suddenness, carries us right into the situation:
Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crawlin ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairlie
I canna say but ye strunt rarely
Owre gauze and lace
Tho' faith, I fear, ye dine but sparely
On sic a place
Not only do we see the louse crawling in the unconscious lady's bonnet but we see the poet himself watching it with exaggerated indignation. A note of social satire creeps in as the poem continues
Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner
Detested, shunn'd, by saunt an' sinner
How daur ye set your fit upon her
Sae fine a Lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body
The theme is developed at some length.
Swith! in some beggar's haffet squattle
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle
Wi' ither kindred, jumping cattle
In shoals and nations
Whaur horn nor bane ne'er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations
Now haud you there, ye're out o' sight
Below the fatt'rils, snug an' tight
Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right
Till ye've got on it
The vera tapmost, tow'ring height
O' Miss's bonnet
My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out
As plump an grey as ony groset
O for some rank, mercurial rozet
Or fell, red smeddum
I'd gie you sic a hearty dose o't
Wad dress your droddum
I wad na been surpris'd to spy
You on an auld wife's flannen toy
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy
But Miss's fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do't?
The contrast between the vulgarity of the louse and the social pretensions of the lady on whose bonnet it is creeping produces ever greater mock outrage on the poet's part until he finally, with effective abruptness, drops the pose of the disturbed onlooker and turns to address the lady herself. As soon as she is named - by the simple country name 'Jenny' - she ceases to be a fine lady and becomes just a girl to whom the poet is addressing a friendly remark. The note of amusement is not dropped, but it has become kindly.
O Jenny, dinna toss your head etc
An' set your beauties a' abread
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie's makin'
Thae winks and finger-ends I dread
Are notice takin
And so the poem ends on a simple proverbial note
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An' foolish notion
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us
An' ev'n Devotion
This last verse contains the often quoted lines and shows Burns depth of understanding of human nature.
Note the capital P in Pow'r denoting God.
This last verse translates as
Oh, that God would give us the very smallest of gifts
To be able to see ourselves as others see us
It would save us from many mistakes
and foolish thoughts
We would change the way we look and gesture
and to how and what we apply our time and attention.