January 25, 2017
To commemorate Robert Burns’s birthday in The Literary Life here is one of the Scotch poet’s more humorous poems:
To a Louse: On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church
(Hover over the dialect words for definitions.)
|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;
Here’s what I said about “To a Louse” in my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:
Robert Burns wrote this poem in his familiar Standard Habbie stanza form. Since Burns rarely attended the common Scottish Presbyterian assemblies, this poem is his imagining of a church service with its hypocritical churchgoers. The speaker sits in a pew behind a respectable young lady during the service. She has dressed in her finery for Sunday church. The speaker notices a louse crawling in her hair. The fine lady is, of course unaware and would be utterly horrified to know someone had spotted lice in her hair. The poem’s obvious theme is that we seldom see ourselves as others see us.
The Standard Habbie stanza form perfected by Robert Burns, Burns adapted the stanza from the 17th-century Scottish poet Robert Sempill who used it in his ballad “The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson.” A Standard Habbie stanza consists of a six lines, or sestet, with three lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming aaa followed by an iambic dimeter line making the b rhyme. The last two lines are iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter rhyming ab. Burns uses this stanza in other poems as “Address to a Haggis” (traditionally read tonight, “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” and “To a Mouse.”