In short, the speaker is watching a louse on a wealthy woman’s hat in church.
This is what makes Burns Scotland’s most popular poet. There are many questions to ask your students:
- What associations do we have about lice?Why is this set in a church?
- Why did he write in a thick accent (I write about accents in another Robert Burns post)?
- Who is the speaker? What do you know about him/her?
- What other things could Burns have used to “take down” the woman a notch? Would they have been as effective? Your students will have fun recounting all of the ways in which someone can be knocked down to size.
- Does the size of the louse have any significance (read: lowly poor person vs. wealthy)? This gets down to symbolism.
- How many different kinds of “English” can they name (British, Scottish, Southern, Hippie, Rapper, etc.)?
I have included a glossary of sorts (it came with the poem). My recommendation is to send your students to the dictionary (or dictionary.com, as they are quite regional and archaic) for the translation. They can write it down on a handout and start with that. For the full affect, have students read it aloud with a full Scottish brogue.
To A Louse:
On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church
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,
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?
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.
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!
ferlie= a wonder or marvel
wonner=a wonder (contemptuous)
haffet=lock of hair at the temple
toy=woman’s old-fashioned cap with ear-flaps