Of Lice and Men: A Special “Robbie Burns’ Day” Post

Louse post-ToALouse Robert Burns, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Edinburgh: Printed for the author and sold by William Creech), 1787. NICKELL 821 B93po1787

Louse post-To A Louse
Robert Burns, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Edinburgh: Printed for the author and sold by William Creech), 1787. NICKELL 821 B93po1787


Happy Robert Burns’ Day! In the spirit of good fun on this day that celebrates the great Scottish poet, we remind you of Burns’ poem “To a Louse” (1787). The brief poem addresses a louse, crawling upon a fine lady’s bonnet (“Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?”) and reminds us of our own little faults with the immortal line: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us /To see oursels as ithers see us!” [O would some power the gift give us / To see ourselves as others see us!]

Before toasting Burns with a glass of Scotch, we thought we might explore the preponderance of pests in English literature of Burns day by showing not only the first edition of his work (in his 1787 collection, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect), but also a lousy work from the pen of John Wolcot (1738-1819), whom Burns called a ‘truly original Bard.”

Wolcot was a satiric wit who published under the pseudonym Peter Pindar. His mock epic, The Lousiad, a Heroi-Comic Poem appeared one year before Burns’ poem (perhaps serving to inspire the louse upon the lady’s hat?). The Lousiad went through numerous editions and created something of feeding frenzy for lice literature in the late 1780s. For example, the louse responded in a 1787 Poetical Epistle from a Louse to Peter Pindar, Esq ; or, The Louse Banished from Court, and the lowly flea also got into the action in The Fleaiad, An Heroic Poem, with Notes (1787).

Peter Pindar, The Lousiad : an heroi-comic poem (London : Printed for G. Kearsley, at Johnson's Head, no. 46, Fleet Street, and W. Forster, music-seller, no. 348, near Exeter 'Change, in the Strand, where may be had, all the author's other pieces), 1786. Nickell 073

Peter Pindar, The Lousiad : an heroi-comic poem (London : Printed for G. Kearsley, at Johnson’s Head, no. 46, Fleet Street, and W. Forster, music-seller, no. 348, near Exeter ‘Change, in the Strand, where may be had, all the author’s other pieces), 1786. Nickell 073

Paul Pindar, The fleaiad, an heroic poem, with notes (London : Printed for G. Kearsley), 1787. X 821 P6521F

Paul Pindar, The fleaiad, an heroic poem, with notes (London : Printed for G. Kearsley), 1787. X 821 P6521F

Much of this lousy literature can be found in the superb Nickell Collection at the University of Illinois. Lloyd F. Nickell, an alumnus of the University of Illinois, assembled this fine collection of English literature of the eighteenth century during his twenty-year residence in England as a business executive. The collection contains rare editions of all the great writers of the period, including Burns, Defoe, Swift, Fielding, Pope, Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Addison and, of course, Wolcot/Peter Pindar. Most of the collection is beautifully bound and in exceptionally fine condition. VH

For more lousy literature, visit The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois: http://www.library.illinois.edu/rbx/

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