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.