To a Louse
On Seeing One On A Lady's Bonnet, At Church
Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Who would have thought that aeronautics would play its part in one of Burns’ most famous poems? "To a Louse" was written in 1786, around the same time as his masterpiece about another “wee beastie”, "To a Mouse".
In this poem Burns mesmerizes his audience with a wonderful description of a louse that has made its way on to the hat of a very beautiful and unsuspecting lady as she sits in church one Sunday.
The poem of course is more famously known for the prophetic lines in the eighth stanza,
“O Wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!”
where Burns appeals to a Deity for the ability to see ourselves as others do.
The lady in this case is the fine Jenny, sporting her new state of the art Sunday best hat, inspired by none other than Vincenzo Lunardi.
“But Miss' fine Lunardi! fye! How daur ye do't?”
Jenny has incorrectly assumed that the attention she is getting “the winks and finger-points” are in approbation of her 'gawze and lace' bonnet and vainly tosses her head.
If this beautiful, yet corrupted woman could see herself as others did, she might save herself from the embarrassment of having her pride shown to be undeserved.
Vicenzo Lunardi was was born in Lucca Italy to an aristocratic family and became a pioneering aeronaut. He had come to England as a young man in the diplomatic service.
The first manned ascent in a balloon had only taken place in 1783. Lunardi became one of the pioneers of this new endeavour, along with James Tytler, Scotland's first aeronaut and the first Briton to fly.
Ballooning was still a spectacle and when Lunardi took to the skies in London in September 1784, it is estimated that 200,000 people were on hand, including members of The Royal Family. This brought Lunardi great fame.
The phenomenon quickly inspired the fashions of the day, including the famous Lunardi Bonnet – a balloon shaped hat standing some 24 inches tall ... and a great home for a louse!
“To a Louse” seems a simple poem at first glimpse, but it reveals complexity when examined. It is half satirical yet wholly telling of the author’s culture and mindset. The notions of classism, inescapable corruption, and self‐salvation attest to the strong influence of the Church. It is also another great example of how Burns had such a natural ability to drop little gems of iconic moments of history into his work; in this case the pioneers of flight!
Contributed by David Glover