Poem of the Month

To a Louse

1785

Type: Poem

 

Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlan ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gawze and lace;
Tho’ faith, I fear ye dine but sparely,
On sic a place.

 

Ye ugly, creepan, blastet 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.

 

Swith, in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle,
Your thick plantations.

 

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight,
Na faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it,
The vera topmost, towrin height
O’ Miss’s bonnet.

 

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ gray as onie grozet:
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 surpriz’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On ’s wylecoat;
But Miss’s fine Lunardi, fye!
How daur ye do ’t?

 

O Jenny dinna toss your head,
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!

 

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,
And ev’n Devotion!

 

 

To a Louse... on seeing one on a lady's bonnet at church

 

 

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 September 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 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.

The closing stanza includes the famous words: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us..."

which many people will recognise, but not necessarily be aware that it comes from this poem. Burns was always keen to prick the pomposity of those who professed to be his "betters" and this poem goes straight to the heart of this philosophy.

 

Image: Clare Melinsky
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