Ahoy there, prince of parasites!
At risk of giving you a fright,
you have been, estimable mite,
and scaled to literary heights.
Are you surprised?
Your own bloodthirsty tribe, I know’s
turned up en masse in verse and prose
by the likes of Rosenberg, Rimbaud,
and George Orwell.
Not one’s so celebrated, though,
as your guid sel.
Yer lad’s there in the pew behind
with farmer’s boots and hands. You’ll find,
(the plough-boy thing’s a pose), his mind
is like a whip –
swift, sharp and ready with a rhyme,
or cutting quip:
songs to scourge the landlord classes,
to make you weep or charge your glasses,
hymn Nature or exalt the masses
in plaint or racket,
or warm his way into some lass’s
(this last we know with some success
as parish registers attest),
and in his hands, dear household pest,
you become huge:
a stand-in for the dispossessed
and comic’s stooge.
But who is he? I hear you ask.
To find out that’s a fulltime task
so varied were his moods and masks,
so broad his muse,
you’d have to get yourself a desk
at St Andrew’s –
a Socialist avant la lettre,
a folk revivalist and setter,
a proto-Thatcherite go-getter,
British Romantic (only better),
to see himself as others see him,
would frankly, Lousy, likely gie him
schizophrenia or at least, a megrim,
which begs the thought,
You wouldn’t really want to be him.
Well, maybe not.
About this poem
This poem was written as part of the Scottish Poetry Library's Addressing the Bard project in 2009. Twelve contemporary poets were asked to select a poem by Robert Burns and respond to it. Tim Turnbull chose 'To a Louse'.
Tim Tunbull comments:
Robert Burns is one of those writers whose ubiquity (even in England) can lead you to think that you know them and their work better than you actually do. I remember Burns songs being played on the radio and the poems cropping up at school, college and on television.
He’s also eminently quotable, so he crops up out of context all over the place. I had a sketchy idea about his life (farmer, rake, excise man, died young) but not the full picture. When I was asked to write this poem I thought I’d better remedy that.
The first thing you notice is that there isn’t a definitive Burns – or at least, different ages tend to reinvent him in their own image. So he becomes at various times a poet of sentiment, love, nationalism (Scottish or British) or radicalism. I suppose that’s true of most writers but given the extent of his popularity it seems more extreme in Burns. From his letters and contemporary accounts it’s also clear that Burns himself was pretty changeable, presenting in different ways to different people, so I decided that this had to be a part of the poem.
I chose ‘To a Louse’ primarily because it makes me laugh. I love the idea of the lice as cattle roaming plantations of hair. The image has a cartoonish quality and the language is cacophonous – squattle, sprattle, grozet, droddum – which gives great energy to the piece. During the composition of my poem I found myself envying the richness of Burns’s Scots vernacular.
There is also a sense in the original that it was written for performance. At the time of writing Burns had a ready audience of like-minded young bucks and I tried to imagine how it would be delivered and received. I found myself wondering just how sympathetic Burns really was to poor Jenny, as some commentators suggest, or if his mock-sermonizing the final stanza might be even less sincere than it appears.
I imagine if read in the kirkyard or a clubbable gathering above a pub it could sound a little like someone farting and then theatrically blaming the dog. Perhaps poor Jenny’s crime is not in setting herself above the dispossessed, or of religious hypocrisy, but in making herself unavailable to Burns and his mates. That’s the poem’s virtue, though. It is not merely that it has layers of meaning that can be unpeeled like an onion, but that it looks slightly different depending on what angle you approach it from.