A ROBERT BURNS POEM FOR BURNS’ DAY: “TO A LOUSE”

           To A Louse
On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church.

Ye ugly,creepan,blastit wonner          (wonder)
Detested,shunn'd by saunt an'sinner,    (saint)
How daur ye set your fit upon her-       (dare, foot) 
        Sae fine a Lady!                 (So)
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner  (Go) 
        On some poor body.

Swith, in some beggar's haffet squattle:  (Away!hair,squat)
There ye may creep, and sprawl,and sprattle,  (scramble)
Wi' ither kindred, jumping cattle,        (other)
        In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne'er daur unsettle   (Where, comb)
        Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye're out o' sight,   (hold)
Below the fatt'rels, snug an'tight,       (ribbon-ends)
Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right,
        Till ye've got on it,
The vera tapmost, tow'ring height         (very)
        O Miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,  (bold)
As plump an'grey as onie grozet:          (gooseberry) 
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
        Or fell, red smeddum,             (poison)
I'd ge ye sic a hearty dose o't,
        Wad dress your droddum!           (would, backside)

I wad na been surpris'd to spy
You on an auld wife's flainen toy;     (old, flannel cap)
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,        (perhaps, small,ragged) 
        On's wylecoat;                  (flannel-vest)
But Miss's fine Lunardi, fye!
        How daur ye do 't?

O, Jenny, dinna toss your head,            (do not)
An' set your beauties a a'bread!           (abroad)
Ye little ken what cursed speed
        The blastie's makin!           (damned thing's)
Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,   (Those)
        Are notice takin!  

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers 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!


Robert Burns. First printed in Kilmarnock Edition in 1786.

This dramatic monologue plunges us immediately into the situation: sitting in church for worship the narrator (not necessarily using the poet’s voice) spies a flea -or louse, a blood-sucking insect- on the elegant bonnet of a lady who is putting on airs, expecting to be a spectacle, but unaware that the reason she is such is because of the louse strutting its way up her headware. The paradoxical nature of the situation leads to the moral of the poem which the poet expresses as the power “to see oursels as ithers (others) see us”.

The verse form is Habbie Samson with a six line pattern rhyming AAABAB , consisting of four stress lines (tetrameter) all keeping a similar rhyme with two distinct rhyming two foot lines (dimeter) in the fourth and sixth line providing often a powerfully succinct finish to the stanza. This metric form is typical of many of Burns poems and , as here, he uses it with rare skill for spontaneous sounding, colloquial Scots.

The easy adoption of colloquial speech allows for both our absorption in the dramatically presented situation and also for the powerful moral point of the last stanza. It has the vivid naturalness and easy flow of speech, along with wit and acumen, that continues to make Burns a very living presence.

It is a typically great Burns poem for celebrating Burns Day!

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