“Man Was Made To Mourn” By Robert Burns

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.

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.

“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.


What strikes one about these famous Burns lines is the sincerity of the apparently sentimental and moralistic tone of the poet reinforced by some of the finest original imagery that one would come across in the 19th century poetry. I love the originality and sheer brilliance of an image like “numerous ills in-woven with our frame” (man comes programmed with all those ills (DNA?)! And he is helpless to avoid them and can only mourn and make countless others mourn). Or more correctly if man is a fine fabric woven by the master weaver (God), his several ills lie inter-woven in the warp and weft of the fabric .

“on the edge of life” is delightfully original.

“man’s inhumanity to man” is now such a worn out expression but remember it was Burns who used it first. Just like the other famous Burns usage of auld lang syne (old long since). “man’s inhumanity to man” is an epigrammatic expression worn out by frequent use but its essential beauty remains in the way it evokes the bestiality ingrained in human nature, highly destructive and exploitative. Humanity presupposes a kin feeling for fellow-humans, a commonness of belonging to the race and inhumanity implies lack of such a feeling. In terms of the recent advances in neuro-sciences there is an ingrained feeling of altruism in the human brain which makes a set of empathy-neurons fire up when confronted with suffering by fellow-humans. This is probably what humanity implies and man’s inhumanity to man is the lack of it.

“There is no frigate like a book” By Emily Dickinson

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

Within the travel metaphor of the frigate that takes us lands away, there is an interesting image of a page of (prancing ) poetry compared to coursers (birds of a certain species found in the desert regions of Asia and Africa) .In the days of exploration and the opening up of several new geographical regions one can imagine the fascination that a frigate has for a reclusive “old maid” poet.

All Dickinson’s poetry sounds like notes written in hurry without a second look. Hence the raw beauty of the lines.

“A valediction forbidding mourning” by John Donne

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

Truly metaphysical is this poem of Donne where he proposes complete abolition of the physical. So let us melt and make no noise.,he says, The melting goes on in the subsequent stanza where their souls expand together like gold “to airy thinness beat” .When virtuous souls pass mildly away ,they merely whisper to their souls to go away.No noise please. No tear-floods nor sigh-tempests.Remember the metaphysical souls are not leaving the bodies for good. Nobody is dying. It is just a separation of their bodies by physical distance.

Metaphysical poems have their images drawn from sciences. An earthquake is fearsome but the parting of their selves is like the music of the spheres which is ever so gentle and makes absolutely no noise..But hold.We are not going to tell you the laity of our love. Suffice it to say that our souls are one.But if they are two they are like the feet of a compass.She is the fixed foot who remains at the center but leans towards which ever point he the second foot traces on the circle..Another scientific image.

Doesn’t it strike one that the old man Donne is actually pulling our legs? A quiet debunking of the love poetry genre of the day seems to be going on all the time.When he uses hyperbole, I see a glint in his eyes as he adjusts his eye-glasses and pulls the folds of his heavy clerical cloak ! We are the laity and who are we to share his confidences about his love life?

“A narrow fellow in the grass “-A poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

“Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.”



I find it interesting to come across this language of modern conviviality and simple colloquialism in a poem written around 150 years ago. That is how it is about Dickinson. The snake in the grass is here no snake in the grass but a narrow fellow, one of nature’s own people whom the poet knew (and who knew her).She has never met this fellow without tighter breathing and zero at the bone. A narrow fellow who slithers in the grass that parts as though he is a comb parting hair.

Cut out all that talk about sexual fancies and Freudian references .Look at the thought beneath the poem as plain anthropomorphism, if you please.

“Batter my heart “By John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The poet is asking the Holy Trinity to save him from the clutches of Satan. The evil influence of Satan is so much that violence has to be exercised by God to get his heart out of it. Hence the use of the harsh words like “batter”, “knock”,“overthrow”, ”bend your force” ,”break” ,”burn”, ”imprison” ,”ravish” etc.

The image I like is the poet’s comparing himself to a “usurped town” and while reason, God’s vice- roy should defend him it is unable to do so because it is captived.

The poet goes on to another image, this time he calls himself wrongfully bethrothed to Satan, God’s enemy and it is for God to forcefully extricate him by “imprisoning” him, ravishing him and making him “chaste”. It is God’s ravishing that makes him chaste and God’s imprisoning that makes him free.

The jungle husband By Stevie Smith

Dearest Evelyn, I often think of you
Out with the guns in the jungle stew
Yesterday I hittapotamus
I put the measurements down for you but they got lost in the fuss
It’s not a good thing to drink out here
You know, I’ve practically given it up dear.
Tomorrow I am going alone a long way
Into the jungle. It is all grey
But green on top
Only sometimes when a tree has fallen
The sun comes down plop, it is quite appalling.
You never want to go in a jungle pool
In the hot sun, it would be the act of a fool
Because it’s always full of anacondas, Evelyn, not looking ill-fed
I’ll say. So no more now, from your loving husband Wilfred.

I love the line “Only sometimes when a tree has fallen/The sun comes down plop, it is quite appalling” .

Of course the whole poem has to be looked at as something written in a lighter vein. A husband who is into the jungle exploring the forest with his gun in tow. He hit a potamus , in a truly Ogden Nash way but could not put the measurements down for her. Why for her, one would ask. So that she is impressed by the largeness of the hippo and his shooting abilities, his fearlessness .She, in turn, could impress the society ladies in her kittie parties. A jungle husband is so romantic!

It is not a good thing to drink out here/But I have practically given it up dear. Practically , of course.

It is all grey but green on top. A confusing landscape where anything can happen but luckily at the top it is green!

“only sometimes when a tree has fallen/The sun comes down plop, it is quite appalling”

A beautiful line written in humour but appealing in its richness of image. Imagine the tree falling in the grey landscape of the jungle and a big hole in space suddenly appears with the sun seeming to drop down from the sky. Plop ! It is quite appalling !

Of course you would never want to venture into the jungle pool. The anacondas there are not looking ill-fed!

An Idiot’s Tale

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The famous lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth are great poetry .The multiplicity of images in the lines confuses a reader a little but in the end it all seems to add up to a beautiful meaning. The book image in which time moves in pages of tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow is followed by the candle image, the brief candle of man’s life ,its light only illumining the way to dusty death .In the brief candle’s light ,man becomes a shadow ,an insubstantial figure depending upon a real figure for its existence. Life is but a walking shadow, which moves as a mere reflection of the real thing. And then suddenly the actor’s image comes –a favorite Shakespearean image which recurs in many of his plays. Life is but a poor bit player on the stage that comes and goes .He stays for a while and while he stays he makes a fool of himself by “showing off” as though the show will go on for ever.

The best image is of the idiot’s tale that comes with a lot of sound and fury .An idiot’s tale is full of sound and fury but in the end it means nothing.

As an undergraduate, what puzzled me was this “idiot “whose tale was supposed to be our life. In the traditional Indian theatre tradition a play is first introduced by a sutradhari . During the introduction and several times during the enactment of the play the sutradhari speaks out as though the action on the stage is his tale which unfolds as he speaks. The sutradhari no doubt does a lot of sound and fury but his tale does not “signify nothing”. It is more plausible that man’s life is merely compared here to a story narrated by an idiot who cannot make a coherent whole out of it to bring forth meaning .Life is not an idiot’s tale( a tale of an idiot), but a tale told by an idiot. May be, there is a grand design behind it all but one does not expect an idiot to make meaning out of it. The sutradhari is making a big mess of his presentation.