A poem for Burns Night | University of Oxford
Ceilidh
You don't have to go to a ceilidh to mark Burns Night

Andrestand (Flickr Creative Commons)

A poem for Burns Night

Matt Pickles

If you don't have the energy to mark Burns Night by going to a ceilidh or cooking haggis, neeps and tatties, Arts Blog has a suggestion for how to mark the day.

We asked Fiona Stafford, Professor of English Language at Literature at Oxford University, to suggest a Robert Burns poem to share with our readers.

She picked ‘To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church’ - and here it is.

'Burns speaks to modern readers very directly because his observations of humanity still ring true, while at the same time a relatively simple poem often turns out to have numerous layers and hidden jokes,’ she says.

‘In 'To a Louse', the speaker is riveted by the steady progress of the louse he spots in the very elaborate and highly fashionable bonnet of a young lady who is evidently hoping to make an impression. 

‘As the poem continues, it becomes clear that the joke is not just on the young lady, who is unaware of her little visitor, but also on the speaker, who is much more interested in the young lady (and, indeed, where the louse may be heading) than in the service, not to mention the minister, who doesn't even merit a mention and thus seems to be commanding the attention of no one. 

‘The famous concluding prayer - 'To see oursels as others see us' - arises naturally from the situation, and reads as a common-sense reflection, but there is a further joke in that it's adapted from the contemporary moral philosophy of Adam Smith. 

‘The speaker who has been addressing the louse in broad Scots turns out to be very well read and up to date in his thinking.'

Professor Stafford is currently interested in Burns and the natural world. Her latest book, ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’, was published by Yale University Press last year. She has found that Burns has a real affinity to nature.

‘As a farmer, we might expect Burns to have had a fairly practical attitude to the land, but many of his poems reveal a sensitivity to the beauty of the local landscape and wildlife, as well as a rare ability to sympathise with non-human perspectives on the planet,’ says Professor Stafford.

‘Burns is one of the first poets to show concern over the clearance of woodlands by contemporary landowners and to influence attitudes by speaking up in verse for the plantation of indigenous trees.  He was, in this way, an early voice for the environment and his enormous popularity and stature as Caledonia's Bard meant that his views carried weight.’