To a Louse Analysis by Robert Burns

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This analysis of Robert Burns’ “To a Louse” is divided into three sections – context, rhyme scheme and rhetorical devices, and themes. Context: “To a Louse” was written by Robert Burns in 1786. The poet had gone to church one day, and he was sitting right behind an elegant lady. However, he was surprised to discover a louse creeping out of her head and on to her bonnet. He was also amused at noting the reactions of the lady and the people around her in light of this incident, and decided to write a poem about it. However, the poem is not as simple as it seems. Behind the simple description, Burns is making a comment on the vanity of human nature.

Rhyme Scheme and Rhetorical Devices: Each stanza in this poem follows the rhyme scheme AAABAB. This kind of rhyme scheme was Burns’ favourite and was known as the standard Habbie, after the piper Habbie Simpson. It is also sometimes known as the Scottish stanza or the six-line stave.

Throughout this poem, the poet uses the device of apostrophe. This rhetorical device is used when a poet addresses his or her poem to an absent or silent audience. Here the poet speaks directly to the louse, as well as to the lady on whose bonnet it is sitting, but we never see either of them responding to the poet at any point in the poem.

In line 2 of the 2nd stanza, the poet uses the device of alliteration. This rhetorical device is identified by the repeated sound of the first consonant in a series of multiple words, or the repetition of the same sounds or of the same kinds of sounds at the beginning of words or in the stressed syllables of a phrase. Here the poet repeats the “s” sound 4 times in a single line when he writes that the louse is “Detested, shunned by saint and sinner”.

In lines 3 and 6 of the 3rd stanza, the poet uses the device of metaphor. This rhetorical device is used when a covert comparison is made between two different things or ideas. Here the poet compares the louse and other head insects to cattle, and the head of a beggar to a plantation.

In line 5 of the 3rd stanza, the poet uses the device of metonymy. This rhetorical device consists of the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant. Here the poet uses the word “horn’ and “bone” to mean combs, since combs were often made of such material in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In line 2 of the 5th stanza, the poet uses the device of simile. This rhetorical device is used when an overt comparison is made between two different things. Here the poet compares the nose of the louse with a gooseberry, both being gray in colour, and also uses the word “as” while making this comparison.

In line 5 of the 7th stanza, the poet uses the device of synecdoche. This rhetorical device is used in many ways to represent one thing with the help of an entirely different one. Here the poet uses part to represent the whole when he writes “winks’ and “finger-ends” to mean the people sitting around the lady at church.

Themes:

  • False class consciousness: Throughout the poem, the poet tells the louse that the lady’s bonnet is not an appropriate site for its habitation. This is because the lady is an aristocrat and takes much care of her appearance. A more suitable place for the louse would be on the body of someone belonging to the lower classes, whether it is beggar or a matron or a street child. None of these people can afford to invest in their appearance, and so the louse’s presence on their heads would not raise eyebrows. By making such ridiculous statements, the poet is trying to expose how artificial the concept of class is. It is a man-made institution. To a louse, such an institution is both is unknown and has no value. Hence, any head is equal to another in its eyes. Man should also perceive each other in this way and prevent any discrimination amongst one another.
  • Perspective: The poet also stresses on the importance of perspective. The way we see something is not the same way in which another person sees it. The same applies to personal appearance and nobility. These qualities are subjective in nature. The lady at church believes she is looking most elegant and dignified. She takes pride in her appearance and tosses he head to show herself off. However, she is unable to see herself through the eyes of the people around her. To them, the sight of the louse on her bonnet makes her look ridiculous.

Do join the discussion and share your views about the poem. You might be interested to take a took at the summary of To a Louse.

 

Keywords – lo a louse analysis (1.8)

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