"Death, The Poor Man's Dearest Friend"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Robert Burns was rarely a happy man. All his life he knew suffering and disappointment. His youth was harsh and painful. Born on a farm whose tenant farmer, his father, was always in debt because of the poor soil and high rent, Robert spent his early life in a series of moves from one poor farm to another. He tried to better his lot by learning to dress flax, only to have the flax shop burn down. His father's death, when Robert was twenty-five, started the poet on a period of four years of intense labor with his younger brothers in a vain attempt to wrest a living from the soil. In his search for love, he had also been unfortunate. The father of one sweetheart, Jean Armour, refused to consent to their marriage even though the girl was mother of his child. Another girl, Mary Campbell, died while at home preparing to marry him. So Burns could hardly be blamed for writing melancholic poetry. A reader can only admire his spirit when poems of wild fun, satire, and delightful descriptions reveal his fine sense of humor. But certainly "Man Was Made to Mourn" is not of this kind. The poet describes himself walking one chill November evening along the banks of Ayr. He comes upon an eighty-year-old man, with white hair and a face furrowed with care. He inquires of the poet the reason for his roaming, whether it is in search of wealth or fun, or perhaps to join with him in mourning the miseries of mankind. Then he expounds his own philosophy. Every returning winter's sun adds only more proof that most of the inhabitants of the moor toil to support some haughty lord. There is nothing in their future except mourning. Indeed, each stanza of the eleven ends with the melancholic statement that mourning is the lot of most men. Even the major part of those who seem favored by fate, the rich and the great, are not really happy. "Man's inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn." The "rev'rend sage" cannot understand why, if designed by Nature to be a slave, he was endowed with ability to form independent desires. His consolation, with which the poem closes, is the most melancholic thought of all: because of his oppressed existence, he has escaped one fear that terrifies so many people. Life for him is so bad that he does not fear Death.

The poor, oppresséd, honest man
Had never, sure, been born,
Had there not been some recompense
To comfort those who mourn!
O Death! the poor man's dearest friend,
The kindest and the best!
Welcome the hour my agéd limbs
Are laid with thee at rest!
The great, the wealthy, fear thy blow,
From pomp and pleasure torn;
But, Oh! a blest relief to those
That weary-laden mourn!