Robert Burns

To A Louse by Robert Burns

‘To A Louse—On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church’ by Robert Burns dates back to 1786 and it’s a poem in the Scots Language. From the title of the poem, the context of the text becomes clear. Burns was at a Church. There he saw a louse crawling on a sophisticated lady’s decorous bonnet. This small creature, blood-packed as a gooseberry, catches the poet’s attention. Moreover, its location makes the poet think about the egalitarian nature of the parasite. Apart from that, his poetic imagination not only runs at a mundane level capturing the movement of the louse, rather he presents a satiric overview of human vanity.


Summary of To A Louse

‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns describes a louse which was crawling on a lady’s decorous bonnet at a church quire.

‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns is a verse describing a louse and its features. The poet has seen it crawling impudently over the gauzes and laces of a fair lady’s bonnet. Bonnet is a woman’s hat tied under the chin and with a brim framing the face. Ladies put on this hat as an accompaniment. However, in this poem, the poet finds the louse at once crawling and at times hiding. Sometimes it tries to peep out showing its blood-filled belly and its noticeable legs. The poet talks with it as if it’s a little devil sinning the sanctified environment of a church! It is destined to feed on some poor lady or boy’s blood, not of that beautiful lady. Moreover, the poet thinks that louse symbolizes the nature of human vanity. The louse in its ugly form proves the futility of one’s thinking about oneself.

You can read the standard English translation of the full poem here.


Structure of To A Louse

‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns is in the poet’s favorite meter. It’s a standard Habbie poem. This form is named after the piper Habbie Simpson (1550–1620). Robert Burns adopted this form. Thereafter this stanza form was named after him as Burns stanza. In Burns stanza or six-line stave, one can find an innovative rhyme scheme. For example, in this poem, the poet uses the AAABAB rhyme scheme. So, the first two lines form a rhyming couplet, and the rest of the line rhyme alternatively like a poem with a conventional rhyme scheme. Moreover, the overall poem consists of eight stanzas. In each stanza, the poet uses the iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter alternatively. Each iambic tetrameter line has a hypermetrical ending as the line contains four iambic feet having an unstressed syllable at the end.


Literary Devices

‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns begins with a personification. Here, the poet personifies the louse as if it can hear the poet’s concerns. In most of the cases, the poet uses irony. For reference, the lines such as “Tho’ faith! I fear ye dine but sparely/ On sic a place” and “How daur ye set you fit upon her”. Moreover, the poet uses a metaphor in the usage of the word “dinner”. To keep the internal rhythm of the poem freely moving, the poet makes use of alliteration and assonance in this poem. As an example, there is alliteration in the phrase, “surpris’d to spy”.

Along with that, the seventh stanza begins with an apostrophe, and here the poet addresses the lady as “Jenny.” In this stanza, the poet uses synecdoche in the word “beauties”. Here, beauty stands for her beautiful hairs. The last stanza of the poem contains an epigram. This stanza presents the essence of the poem.


Themes in To A Louse

‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns contains some important themes such as the futility of the human body, vanity, and egalitarianism. In the first few stanzas of the poem, Robert Burns uses the louse as a symbol of death. Apart from that, this creature is egalitarian. Both a saint and sinner detest this creature. But, somehow it creeps in the body of both. It sees a human body as a source of its sustenance. Humans belonging to different strata of society doesn’t make any sense to its little eyes. Hence, it chooses a body for the color without considering the pedigree. Moreover, the poet presents another essential theme, the futility of the human body in this poem. The fair lady represents sophistication and gentility. Whereas, the louse breaks the boundaries and chooses her body to get what it longs for.

In this way, the poet illustrates the point-of-view of a louse. From its spectacle, the poet can feel that the fascination with the body is a futile process. No matter how a lady pampers her body, a louse can still make its way to her scintillating hairs. Lastly, the poet ironically comments on the vanity of human beings in the last stanza. According to the poet, if one understands how others visualize a person, it would keep one from committing blunders. Moreover, it would also clear her foolish notion about her body.


Analysis of To A Louse

Stanza One

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.

‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns introduces the louse through the use of interrogation. The poet has been observing the movement of the louse for a few moments before. And, the poem begins at the point when it hides inside the lady’s bonnet. The poet, as if chasing the creature, asks the louse about its destination. The poet is sure about the fact that the louse swagger rarely on such a sophisticated lady’s headdress. It seems that the louse is a sinner. Trespassing a pure lady’s bonnet is nothing but sinning in the daylight. The situation makes the poet fearful as he is at the church and seeing a creature sinning in sanctified air. Hence, he asks the louse if it occasionally chooses such a place to dine or not. He is doubtful about the louse’s innocence, ironically.


Stanza Two

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.

In the second stanza of ‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns, the poet says that ugly and blasted thing is detested by both the saint and the sinner. Still, it can creep into their bodies. Moreover, the poet rebukes the louse for setting foot upon such a fine lady. The louse on her bonnet reflects the imperfections of human beings. Moreover, the poet suggests the creature to go somewhere else and seek dinner from some poor body. This line presents the contrast between the rich and the poor. It also hints at the conventional approach of lousy picturization of the poor people.


Stanza Three

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.

The third stanza of ‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns begins with the sense of the last line of the previous stanza. Here, the poet orders the louse to leave the lady. It can lay its legs in a beggar’s temple. There it can creep, sprawl, and scramble with other kindred such as jumping cattle. In a poor body, there is nothing to stop its movement. The poet says, “Whare horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle/ Your thick plantations.” In this line, the metaphorical reference to plantations is significant. It means that a colonizer can plunder a defenseless country easily in comparison to the rich and resourceful country. In this way, Burns compares the louse with a colonizer or plunderer.


Stanza Four

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.

In this stanza of ‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns, the poet again comes to the lady’s bonnet where the louse creeps. He orders the louse not to move from where it is hiding. It has successfully moved into the headdress and laid its firm grip on the lady’s hair. The thought of the louse drinking the fair lady’s blood makes the poet agitated. He implores it if it has any faith or not. After drinking such a pure lady’s blood, it can’t be in good health. However, in the last two lines, the poet presents a symbol of vanity. Here, the “towering height” of the bonnet resembles the towering passion of humanity. Ironically, a louse symbolizing fate creeps in and shatters the tower into ashes in no time.


Stanza Five

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.

In the fifth stanza of ‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns, the poet’s tone changes. In the previous stanzas, his tone was aggressive and disturbing and in this stanza, his tone is mild and pleading. He requests the louse for his sake to set its nose out from that lady’s skin. Here, the poet presents the image of the grozet or gooseberry and compares it to the blood-fed louse by the use of a simile. Again the poet’s tone turns angry and agitated after seeing how unsparingly the louse has sucked the blood out of the lady’s body. He desires to put some mercurial rozet or resin and deadly red smeddum or powder on it. After giving a hearty dose of the solution, he can justly avenge the breach done by the louse.


Stanza Six

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?

Thereafter, in ‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns, the poet says he would not have been surprised to find it on an old wife’s flannel cap or maybe on the undervest of a small ragged boy. The reference to the old lady and the boy is significant as it contrasts the condition of the rich and poor classes. One has enough resources to keep the parasites away. And the latter has nothing but to stay where they are and suffer as if they were destined to act as the habitat of the parasites such as louse. In this case, the louse is none other than the rich who suck the blood out of the poor’s body metaphorically for building their empire of finesse.

Moreover, the poet rebukes the louse for entering into the fine balloon bonnet of the mistress. How dare a creature like a louse can do it! That’s the question directed to the readers and the society as a whole. An interesting thing to mention here, the “fine Lunardi” or the fine balloon bonnet of the lady again represents a symbol of human vanity.


Stanza Seven

O Jeany, 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.

The seventh stanza of ‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns presents a package of intense irony. The softness of the poet’s tone along with his easy-going mood depicts how playfully Burns can smite his ironical lashes on the society as kindly as he can. Burns requests the lady by addressing her as “Jenny” or a female animal, not to toss her head as it might disturb the creature. The tossing of her head can also spread the “beauties” or ironically other lice living inside her mazy hairs all abroad. However, the lady isn’t aware of the speed of the louse. By seeing its mischievous movement the poet is astonished. Hence he makes use of rhetorical exclamation in this section.

At last, the poet refers to the noticeable body parts of the creature and presents another contrast. Here, the poet compares the beauty of the lady to the physical sophistication of the louse. Additionally, it heightens the satirical effect.


Stanza Eight

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!

In the last stanza of ‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns, the poet presents the essence of the poem. Here, the poet says that if humans have the power to see themselves as others see them, it will change the perception of humankind. The reality of human life and the human body will help one to make reasonable decisions. It would keep one from committing a blunder. Moreover, the poet refers to the “foolish notion”, a lady has in her mind about her body and appearance. The spectacle from an objective perspective will give a person a better insight into life. Then the lady or gentleman can understand that the “air” of vanity makes one focus more on the dress and gait. One sees the body with devotion to this fake notion. Henceforth, the poet uses the louse as a symbol to illustrate the futility of such imaginations.


Historical Context

‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns is a Scots language poem that was written in 1786. This poem presents Burns’ romantic ideals. Being a pioneer of the Romantic movement, through the lines of the poem, readers can sense the poet’s views on riches, humanity, class difference, and liberalism. The poem dates back to the era when the difference between the rich and the poor was stark. Moreover, the have and have-nots get featured in the poem by the reference to the louse moving on a rich lady’s bonnet as well as a simple flannel cap of a poor lady. Apart from that, the egalitarian nature of the louse emphasizes the concept of equality. As if the louse is god-like and in its tiny eyes everybody is the same. The only difference being a parasite feeds on blood and God supplies essential resources to keep the cycle of life moving.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘To A Louse’ by Robert Burns, here is a list of a few poems that ironically comments on the excess of human pride and presents the theme of the futility of the human body.

You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Life here.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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