Stanzas 1 - 3: Disbelief and social effrontery

Stanza 1

The poem opens with the minor exclamatory sentence Ha!, at once suggesting that the persona is witnessing something surprising. In total, five stanzas of the eight stanzas in the poem open with an exclamatory word or marker of conversation. These give a sense of immediacy, as if we were with the persona watching the louse's progress as it happens.

quote
whare ye gaun

The rhetorical question develops the notion that the speaker is surprised by the spectacle unfolding before his eyes. The demanding tone of the question suggests that the speaker wants this louse to answer for itself. This immediately places the speaker at odds with the louse. It suggests a social hierarchy - the perceived superiority of the human over the beastie, which can be called to account. At the same time, this direct address does suggest a level of equality in that the louse is seen to have both motivation and the intellect to expain it.

quote
crowlan ferlie

Use of Scots here meaning 'crawling curiosity' indicates the speaker’s surprise at seeing this louse make its way so boldly over the fine clothes of the churchgoing lady. What would normally be seen as an unremarkable insect is made worthy of attention by its inappropriate behaviour.

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I canna say but ye strunt rarely,/ Owre gawze and lace

While the persona initially suggests the louse’s actions to be sheer impudence, the confidence with which it moves makes the reader think that these are well-practised actions.

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I fear ye dine but sparely,/ On sic a place

The first stanza concludes with a pessimistic warning for the louse not to expect his host to be hospitable or to provide it with what it needs. With this final note, Burns seems to be making a point about social justice and equity. There is a clear irony in the fact that this louse is looking for charity in a place where it will clearly not be given to him.

Stanza 2

quote
Ye ugly, creepan, blastet wonner

Stanza two opens with an explosion of adjectives describing both the unsightliness and the unseemliness of the louse. The juxtaposition of blastet (meaning 'damned') and wonner ('wonder') calls our attention to the fact that even this seemingly repellent insect is capable of something incredible.

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Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner

Here the persona begins to reflect on the wider significance of the insect. It is a social leveller, its power to repel both rich and poor, good and bad, is something to pay attention to.

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Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner/ On some poor body

Stanza two ends with the persona urging the louse to go elsewhere. He commands it to find a more suitable host in the form of an impoverished person. This comes across as satirical - it suggests that the louse should know it's place in society. Here Burns contrasts what is natural - a louse will look on any person for a home, with an invented social hierarchy - which imposes positions on people based on their wealth.

Stanza 3

quote
in some beggar’s haffet squattle

The opening of the third stanza continues to develop the image of the louse being more at home on a 'beggar' than in church.By doing so he suggests that the church, rather than opening its doors to everyone does not welcome the poor.

Throughout the poem, Burns uses a wide range of Scots verbs to describe the movements of the louse (for example crowlan and creepan). In this verse, Burns makes much of both consonance (the repeated sp sound) and long vowel sounds in sprawl and sprattle as the persona pictures the louse being at ease squatting in front of a beggar's ear.

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Wi'ither kindred, jumping cattle,/In shoals and nations

Burns’ very deliberate deployment of collective nouns reinforces his underlying comment about social injustice:

  • shoals suggests the sheer scale of the underclass of insects
  • nations suggests a brotherhood or community of lice with shared characteristics
  • cattle suggest their lowly status
quote
Your thick plantations.

The word choice of plantations seems particularly loaded, with its connotations of slavery and colonisation.

The feminine rhyme of ‘plantations’ and ‘nations’ forces the reader to further consider social disparity.