To a Louse

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"To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church" is a 1786 Scots language poem by Robert Burns in his favourite meter, standard Habbie. The poem's theme is contained in the final verse:

Burns original Standard English translation

O wad some Pow'r 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!

And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!

In this poem the narrator notices an upper class lady in church, with a louse that is roving, unnoticed by her, around in her bonnet. The poet chastises the louse for not realising how important his host is, and then reflects that, to a louse, we are all equal prey, and that we would be disabused of our pretensions if we were to see ourselves through each other's eyes. An alternative interpretation is that the poet is musing to himself how horrified and humbled the pious woman would be if she were aware she was harboring a common parasite in her hair.

Another possible interpretation: "If only God had given us the power to see ourselves as others see us." The poet recognizes our self centered tendencies. Perhaps he is appealing to us to look at ourselves truthfully.

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