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To a Louse


Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie? Your impudence protects you sairly; I canna say but ye strunt rarely, Owre gauze and lace; Tho', faith! I fear ye dine but sparely On sic a place. 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. 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'rels, snug and tight; Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right, Till ye've got on it - The verra tapmost, tow'rin height O' Miss' 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 flainen toy; Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy, On's wyliecoat; But Miss' 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 an' finger-ends, I dread, Are notice takin. O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us, An' foolish notion: What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us, An' ev'n devotion!

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Robert Carlyle

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1785 and is read here by Robert Carlyle.

More about this poem

Probably composed in 1785, around the same time as To a Mouse, 'To a Louse' also addresses lower creation in order to wean a moral lesson for mankind.

A particularly audacious louse has made its way onto the bonnet of a local beauty, Jenny, while she sits in church. The language Burns uses in addressing the louse is reminiscent of William Dunbar's flytings and is highly effective in rendering the unhygienic vermin as an unwelcome guest on so fine a lady.

Jenny incorrectly believes that the winks and stares of the church congregation are in approbation of her 'gawze and lace' bonnet and vainly tosses her head.

The poet humorously laments that if we had the power to see ourselves as others see us, such ridiculous displays could be prevented. The poem's linking of an observed experience, or exemplum, to a final maxim, or sententia, is typical of a Horatian satire.

Megan Coyer

Themes for this poem

humour equality nature

Selected for 13 December

Today's poem was written in December 1785. So for the 13th of the month, a country coquette having literally 'lousy' luck with her coiffure. Lice are rarely the recipients of Horation odes and the contrast between form and subject is provocatively perverse. One might expect so despicable a creature on the 'flainen toy' or homely headwear of an old woman. But on such a bonnet, on such a beauty. And in such a setting! Well...

Donny O'Rourke

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