Structure

The poem can be divided into three distinct sections:

Stanzas 1-3

The persona has had his attention aroused by a louse which is crawling over an attractive lady sitting in church. The impudent louse has utter disregard for the social status of the parishioners. In these stanzas the persona seems initially scandalized by the louse’s actions. He questions whether this fine woman is a suitable target for the louse - a beggar might be a more appropriate host.

Stanzas 4-6

Having watched the louse go entirely unnoticed by woman, the persona now observes the louse's attempts to scale the heights of her bonnet. This leads to a shift in the persona's attitude - he begins to appreciate the fearless nature of the louse's climb. In a moment of clarity, the persona realises that, to the louse, humans are all the same, regardless of status, wealth etc.

Stanzas 7 and 8

The persona’s attention is diverted to Jenny, the young woman on whom the louse has been crawling. Jenny’s vanity annoys the persona, leading him to dwell on the concept of self-awareness. The poem concludes with a final encouragement (directed at humanity itself) to rid ourselves of pretension and to have more awareness of how we might be viewed by others.

The Standard Habbie

The Standard Habbie is a poetic form used frequently by Burns in his work, for example in To a Mouse.

The Stardard Habbie has the following characteristics:

  • six lines of verse
  • rhyme structure AAABAB
  • lines one, two, three and five are of four metrical feet
  • lines four and six are of two metrical feet

This form helps give momentum and pace. Here it works well with the narrative voice as it evolves quickly from the mock-scandalized observer (Stanzas 1-3) into the comically deferential onlooker (Stanzas 4-6) and finally settles on the critical voice of the social commentator (Stanzas 7-8).