Man Was Made To Mourn

When chill November's surly blast Made fields and forests bare, One ev'ning, as I wander'd forth Along the banks of Ayr, I spied a man, whose aged step Seem'd weary, worn with care; His face was furrow'd o'er with years, And hoary was his hair. "Young stranger, whither wand'rest thou?" Began the rev'rend sage; "Does thirst of wealth thy step constrain, Or youthful pleasure's rage? Or haply, prest with cares and woes, Too soon thou hast began To wander forth, with me to mourn The miseries of man. "The sun that overhangs yon moors, Out-spreading far and wide, Where hundreds labour to support A haughty lordling's pride; - I've seen yon weary winter-sun Twice forty times return; And ev'ry time has added proofs, That man was made to mourn. "O man! while in thy early years, How prodigal of time! Mis-spending all thy precious hours- Thy glorious, youthful prime! Alternate follies take the sway; Licentious passions burn; Which tenfold force gives Nature's law. That man was made to mourn. "Look not alone on youthful prime, Or manhood's active might; Man then is useful to his kind, Supported in his right: But see him on the edge of life, With cares and sorrows worn; Then Age and Want - oh! ill-match'd pair - Shew man was made to mourn. "A few seem favourites of fate, In pleasure's lap carest; Yet, think not all the rich and great Are likewise truly blest: But oh! what crowds in ev'ry land, All wretched and forlorn, Thro' weary life this lesson learn, That man was made to mourn. "Many and sharp the num'rous ills Inwoven with our frame! More pointed still we make ourselves, Regret, remorse, and shame! And man, whose heav'n-erected face The smiles of love adorn, - Man's inhumanity to man Makes countless thousands mourn! "See yonder poor, o'erlabour'd wight, So abject, mean, and vile, Who begs a brother of the earth To give him leave to toil; And see his lordly fellow-worm The poor petition spurn, Unmindful, tho' a weeping wife And helpless offspring mourn. "If I'm design'd yon lordling's slave, By Nature's law design'd, Why was an independent wish E'er planted in my mind? If not, why am I subject to His cruelty, or scorn? Or why has man the will and pow'r To make his fellow mourn? "Yet, let not this too much, my son, Disturb thy youthful breast: This partial view of human-kind Is surely not the last! The poor, oppressed, honest man Had never, sure, been born, Had there not been some recompense To comfort those that mourn! "O Death! the poor man's dearest friend, The kindest and the best! Welcome the hour my aged limbs Are laid with thee at rest! The great, the wealthy fear thy blow From pomp and pleasure torn; But, oh! a blest relief for those That weary-laden mourn!"


Bill Paterson

About this work

This is an epitaph by Robert Burns. It was written in 1784 and is read here by Bill Paterson.

More about this epitaph

This piece, as the title suggests, is a melancholic poem, but is in praise of this emotional state. It was apparently inspired by his blind great-grand uncle's enjoyment at listening to Burns mother sing of an evening, tears rolling down his cheeks.

The style of the ballad is thought to have been influenced by one of his uncle's favourites, the folk ballad Life and Age of Man.

Alistair Braidwood

Set to the tune of Peggy Bawn, 'Man Was Made to Mourn' is one of several poems in which Burns turned to the sentimental to explore the plight of the poor. The poet's brother Gilbert remarked, 'He used to remark to me, that he could not well conceive a more mortifying picture of human life, than a man seeking work.

In casting about in his mind how this sentiment might be brought forward, the elegy Man was made to mourn, was composed.' (James Currie, iii. 384).

Indeed, the subject was one upon which he frequently wrote to friends, such as Mrs Dunlop, where he described his aged uncle who was blind who would cry as his mother sang the song, 'The life and age of man'.

The subject of this poem is an aged, white-haired sage, a frequently-occurring character in eighteenth-century poetry right down to the old man of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads and Burns's poem is infused with literary echoes of the sentimental works of Blair's The Grave, Shenstone's Elegies, Young's Night Thoughts and other Augustan churchyard poetry.

There is a strong sense here that Burns was both following in a recognisable tradition but the shift in the speaker's reflection upon the old man to the individual, self-reflecting first person infuses the poem with a fresh sentiment, carried by the memorable refrain, 'Man was made to mourn': 'If I'm design'd yon lordling's slave, / By Nature's law design'd, / Why was an independent wish / E'er planted in my mind?'

The poem's conclusion that Death is 'the poor man's dearest friend', once again echoes Young's Night Thoughts, ultimately offering the cold consolation that unlike 'the Great, the Wealthy' who have much to lose, the poor man cannot fear Death.

Jennifer Orr

Themes for this epitaph

age anguish death

Selected for 03 November

In today's selection with the Bard in sombre mood, 'chill November's surly blast', is more than merely meteorological...

Donny O'Rourke

Skip to top

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.