English - Lice in literature

20th July 2012 at 01:00
They have long been a theme in writing and in works of art

When the child's forehead, full of torments red

Implores the swarm of white dreams hovering dim,

Two elder sisters take him from his bed,

Sisters with silvery nails and slim ...

He hears their black lids beating; and their mild,

Electric fingers, in the scented breath

Of silence that in greyness folds the child,

On royal nails crack little lice to death.

Arthur Rimbaud (1851-1891), translated by Jethro Bithell

Throughout history, artists have sought to depict lice in various ways. The Garden of Health, for example, published in 1491, shows a man on his knees being brushed by a lady while three oversized lice run around a water bowl (pictured below).

In Tintoretto's Susanna and the Elders from the mid-16th century, we find an ornate two-sided comb and Caravaggio also included a double-sided comb in Martha and Mary Magdalene (c.1598). The Dutch school was especially keen to reflect the realities of everyday life and several famous paintings show subjects delousing each other.

Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, refers to lice and stavesacre - a poisonous herb used as an insecticide - in Doctor Faustus.

In 1728, Jonathan Swift wrote: "When you saw Tady at long bullets play,You sate and loused him all a sunshine day.How could you, Sheelah, listen to his tales,Or crack such lice as his between your nails?"

These days, children find the subject fun thanks to writers such as John Dougherty, the hero of whose book Niteracy Hour is a head louse called Jim, while Francesca Simon added Horrid Henry's nits to her series about the infamous eponymous rascal. There has even been an animation, The Itch of the Golden Nit. Love them or loathe them, nits have never gone out of fashion.

Adapted from The Little Book of Nits by Richard Jones and Justine Crow, published by AC Black.


Use English Banana Trust's vocabulary list to see how many words pupils know, from "head lice" to "Zimbabwe".

Help pupils to write a leaflet about head lice with npez's Writing to Inform scheme of work.

In the forums

Can nits be passed on by swapping hats?

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