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On Another’s Sorrow by William Blake

“On Another’s Sorrow” appears in William Blake’s collection of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It is part of the Songs of Innocence section. In this poem, Blake talks about God’s sympathizing self that always stays by a souk in distress. He is compared to humankind’s divine parent who sits beside every weeping being throughout day and night. He does so in order to wipe their tears away and fill their hearts with his love and care. Furthermore, this poem compares God to another human being who commiserates with his fellow beings in their sorrow.

  • Read the full text of “On Another’s Sorrow” here along with the analysis section.
Analysis of On Another's Sorrow by William Blake


Summary

The poem “On Another’s Sorrow” begins with an emotive question originating directly from Blake’s sympathetic heart. He asks whether he can see another’s sorrow and be a mute listener to their lament. According to him, like a father or mother cannot see their infants in tears, he also commiserates with others’ sorrow. It is a natural instinct to feel sorry for a poor one’s fate.

Thereafter, he refers to the Lord who smiles on us when we are happy. Naturally, when we are in distress or any creature weeps, he descends to empathize with them. Be it a little wren or an infant in pain, God comforts each individual with his motherly warmth and fatherly care.

Blake tells readers not to feel alone when they are in a similar condition. God is always beside them whenever their hearts pain deep. Being the provider of comfort and joy, he destroys their grief and cheers them up again.

Meaning

The title of the poem “On Another’s Sorrow” is a poem written on the topic of humankind’s sorrow. It hints at the fact that this poem is going to deal with not only the sorrow of human beings but also all the creatures. That’s why he uses the term “Another’s” leaving the interpretation open. It encompasses the living beings God created. In this poem, Blake presents his perspective on divine sympathy. According to him, as he also feels sorry for another’s sorrow, God feels the same. Parents never sit and passively watch their children cry. As God is the divine father (or mother) of humankind, he does not overlook the pain of his children. When they are happy, he becomes cheerful. Whereas if they undergo mental distress, he is also there to comfort their hearts.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Structure & Form

“On Another’s Sorrow” consists of nine four-line stanzas. A four-line stanza is also called a quatrain. This poem is written in the format of an interrogation. Blake also provides the answers at the end of his questions. He wrote this piece from a subjective perspective. Hence, he employs the first-person point of view, giving this poem a lyrical outlook. Besides, he uses the rhyming couplet form throughout the poem.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of the poem is AABB. It means the first two lines and the last two lines of a quatrain rhyme. For example, in the first stanza, the rhyming pairs of words are “woe” and “too”; “grief” and “relief”. This scheme is followed in every stanza. In some instances, the poet uses the same words to end the lines. While in other cases he uses words that imperfectly rhyme. For instance, the words “child” and “fill’d”; “gone” and “moan” rhyme imperfectly.

Meter

In this poem, each line consists of seven syllables (“Can I see a-no-ther’s woe”). There are only a few lines that contain eight syllables (“An in-fant groan, an in-fant fear”). As there are seven syllables per line readers have to separate the first syllable and group the others in three feet. The stress falls on the first syllable of each line, making it an acephalous foot. In the following feet, the stress falls on the second syllable, leaving the first one unstressed. So, the overall poem is composed in iambic tetrameter. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first two stanzas for understanding the overall meter of the poem.

Can/ I see/ a-no/-ther’s woe,

And/ not be/ in sor/-row too?

Can/ I see/ a-no/-ther’s grief,

And/ not seek/ for kind/ re-lief?

Can/ I see/ a fal/-ling tear,

And/ not feel/ my sor/-row’s share?

Can/ a fa/-ther see/ his child

Weep,/ nor be/ with sor/-row filled?


Literary Devices

In Blake’s “On Another’s Sorrow”, readers can find the following literary devices.

  • Rhetorical Question: This piece contains a number of rhetorical questions that Blake asks readers. One such example of interrogation is “Can I see another’s woe,/ And not be in sorrow too?”
  • Repetition: In the first stanza, there is a repetition of the phrase “Can I see”. It also occurs in the third stanza. Here the terms “infant” and “never” are repeated.
  • Refrain: The poet uses the following lines as a refrain: “No, no! never can it be!/ Never, never can it be!”
  • Enjambment: It occurs in “Can a father see his child/ Weep, nor be with sorrow fill’d?” The poet makes one read the lines quickly in order to grasp the idea.
  • Anaphora: This device is used in the fourth and seventh stanzas. For example, all the lines of the seventh stanza begin with the word “He”.
  • Personification: It occurs in “Hear the wren with sorrows small/ Hear the small bird’s grief and care”. In these lines, Blake personifies the wren.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds at the beginning of words can be found in: “sorrow’s share”, “No, no! never”, “sorrows small”, and “Pouring pity”.
  • Metaphor: Blake uses this device in “a man of woe”. Here, God is compared to a human being in distress. Besides, he uses this device in “That our grief He may destroy”. Here, the concept of “grief” is compared with a physical thing that can be destroyed.


Themes

The most important theme of the poem “On Another’s Sorrow” is the divine empathy for humankind. To explore this theme, Blake uses an analogy. He describes God as a parent of humankind. Like parents care for their children, God is always attentive to His children’s concerns. Besides, this poem also taps on the theme of innocence that is an integral part of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. In this poem, the poet utilizes this theme in the references to a child, infant, and a small wren. Be it a human child or a birdling, God is sympathetic to every creature living on earth. He becomes an infant to share the pain of an infant. Besides, he also becomes a small wren in order to its pain. In this way, Blake presents the innocent side of God, every empathic for his little ones.

Line-by-Line Critical Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-4

Can I see another’s woe,

And not be in sorrow too?

Can I see another’s grief,

And not seek for kind relief?

The poem “On Another’s Sorrow” begins with an emotive question. Blake speaks through his poetic persona in the first person. He asks whether another’s sorrow would not evoke a sense of empathy in his heart. It would definitely evoke pity in one’s heart to see another fellow man in suffering.

In the next line, the speaker asks a similar question. He asks if a person’s grief would not make him seek a sense of relief for the person. In this way, the poet describes the soft core of a man’s heart. Though there is passivity and coldness in this world, this part of the human heart makes one feel sympathetic for the pangs of another. Blake is one such person whose heart aches when he finds a man in intense sorrow.

Lines 5-8

Can I see a falling tear,

And not feel my sorrow’s share?

Can a father see his child

Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

In the next stanza, he goes on asking a few questions in order to bring home the idea of sympathy and compassion. He depicts an image of “a falling tear” that paints a picture of a man in tears. By presenting this image, he tells readers that another one’s pain is part of his own suffering. He also feels the same when he sees one crying innocently.

When a father sees his child weeping, his heart gets filled with sorrow. Blake compares him to a father who feels pity to see his child in a sorrowful state. As a father cannot ignore his child’s distress, the speaker cannot overlook the pangs of humankind. His humanitarian nature is reflected in these lines.

Lines 9-12

Can a mother sit and hear

An infant groan, an infant fear?

No, no! never can it be!

Never, never can it be!

In the following stanza, he asks if a mother can merely sit and hear her child groan in fear. The answer is definitely “no”. A baby’s groaning makes a mother’s senses unstable. She tries as best she can in order to give relief to her child. In this way, the poet steps into the shoes of a mother and try to feel her pain. In the last two lines, the poet uses two rhetorical exclamations. These lines repeat the fact that a mother never ignores her infant’s pain. By using this repetition, the poet emphasizes this idea. From the tone of these lines, the poet’s sympathy for the infant is portrayed.

Lines 13-16

And can He who smiles on all

Hear the wren with sorrows small,

Hear the small bird’s grief and care,

Hear the woes that infants bear –

In this stanza, Blake refers to God by using the pronoun “He”. He portrays the kind side of God with the help of visual imagery. Through this image, the smiling face of God is portrayed. According to the poetic persona, as God smiles at our happiness, he also feels sympathetic when we are sorrowful.

In the following lines, the poet uses anaphora to connect the idea. Each of these lines begins with the word “Hear”. Here, Blake describes how God listens to everyone. Be it is a wren with its “small sorrow” (a reference to its tiny size) or the woes of an infant, he can feel their pain. In the line “Hear the small bird’s grief and care”, the poet personifies the bird by investing it with the idea of feeling low. Besides, he also uses the wren and an infant as a symbol of innocence.

Lines 17-20

And not sit beside the nest,

Pouring pity in their breast,

And not sit the cradle near,

Weeping tear on infant’s tear;

The first line of this section is connected with the idea of the previous stanza. Enjambment is used in order to connect the lines. According to the speaker, God listens to the little bird’s sorrow and sits beside the nest as a mother does. He pours pity in their breast. Here, the abstract idea “pity” is compared with a mild liquid that God fills in a sorrowful heart.

Furthermore, he says that He does not ignore an infant too. Whenever it groans in pain and becomes afraid, God sits near its cradle. It makes the infant feel safe. When it cries, He also sheds tears. In this way, Blake compares to the parent of humankind. As a mother cries if her child is suffering, God also cries if His children are in pain.

Lines 21-24

And not sit both night and day,

Wiping all our tears away?

O no! never can it be!

Never, never can it be!

Blake utilizes the previous stanzas and this one in order to pose a single question to readers. This long question ends in the second line of this stanza. In the first two lines, Blake’s speaker asks whether God not sits for night and day beside us and wipes our tears. Indeed, He does. As we are all His children, he feels pity for us whenever we shed tears. Then God invisibly appears in order to wipe our grief away.

The last two lines contain a refrain. It previously occurred in the third stanza, at the end of the first rhetorical question. The poet uses this repetition to create musicality in this piece.

Lines 25-28

He doth give His joy to all:

He becomes an infant small,

He becomes a man of woe,

He doth feel the sorrow too.

All the lines of this stanza begin with the word “He”. It is another instance of anaphora meant for the sake of emphasizing the ideas present here. In this section, Blake is no longer in an interrogative mood. What he thinks about God, he says it directly to readers. According to him, God is the giver of joy to humankind. He becomes an infant to share the pain of a little child. Besides, he acts just like a man whose heart beats for a human’s sake. In the last line, Blake is confident about God’s empathy for humans. According to him, He does feel sorry whenever a man is in woe.

Lines 29-32

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,

And thy Maker is not by:

Think not thou canst weep a tear,

And thy Maker is not near.

In this stanza, Blake addresses readers and tells them not to think that their “Maker”, a metaphorical reference to God, is not beside them when they feel down. If we sigh, God sighs too. Moreover, Blake affirms that God is always near us whenever we weep. He is there to assist us in our needs. At times, we feel low or cry to relieve our hearts from pain. Then it should not be felt that there is none beside us. God is always there to comfort our drooping soul and fill it with his happiness. Firstly, He sympathizes with us and then he heals our pain.

Lines 33-36

O! He gives to us His joy,

That our grief He may destroy:

Till our grief is fled and gone

He doth sit by us and moan.

The last stanza of “On Another’s Sorrow” begins with a rhetorical exclamation. It seems the speaker feels ecstatic to think about the joy God gives to human beings. He destroys grief with happiness, and sadness with compassion. The father of mankind waits until one’s heart is totally free from the clutches of pain. He sits by us as a caregiver. The pain we feel is also felt by him.

In the third line, Blake personifies the abstract idea of “grief” and invests it with the idea of fleeing. The last line invests God with a human attribute. Blake visualizes Him as a father (or mother) who sits by His children in their distress and moans in their pain.

Tone

The tone of “On Another’s Sorrow” does not remain fixed. In the first six stanzas, Blake’s tone is interrogative and thoughtful. He goes on to ask readers a few questions. The main idea behind asking them reflects a sense of confidence of the speaker. Besides, the repetition of the lines “No, no! never can it be!/ Never, never can it be!” hints at his conviction. He is of the view that when he finds one in sorrow, his heart feels the same emotion. In the last few stanzas, the tone changes to a more confident and happier one. The poetic persona describes how God is always there with us. He is depicted as a healer who commiserates with humans’ suffering.

Historical Context

The poem “On Another’s Sorrow” was published in 1789 in William Blake’s masterpiece Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It is the last song of the first section. In this poem, Blake talks about human and divine empathy. The theme of innocence is present in this piece as in the other poems of Songs of Innocence. He uses the recurring images of an infant and a wren to employ this theme. Besides, he depicts God not as a supernatural being, but as a mere human being. He is sympathetic towards the sufferings of others like the poet feels. In this way, Blake presents God as a compassionate and caring human whose heart pains deep when another human is in extreme woe.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “On Another’s Sorrow” about?

William Blake’s “On Another’s Sorrow” is about divine compassion and empathy. In this poem, Blake explores how a feeling heart sympathizes with another. If one is in sorrow, the poet feels the same. He asks whether a father or mother can merely overlook their child’s pain. As they cannot do that, Blake is also unable to passively look at others’ distress. God, our “Maker”, is also like the poet. He is always there to comfort his weeping children.

Can I see another’s and not be in sorrow too?

This line appears in William Blake’s song “On Another’s Sorrow”. Through this line, Blake tries to say that he cannot be a passive onlooker over another’s woe. He commiserates with his fellow being’s distress.

What is the message or moral lesson of the poem?

The message of “On Another’s Sorrow” is present in the last two stanzas. Through these stanzas, Blake tells us not to think that God is not there when we are in sorrow. He is always near to wipe our tears and pain.

What can the poet see in “On Another’s Sorrow”?

The poet can see another’s woe and becomes sorrowful for the person’s ill fate.

What is the major theme of the poem “On Another’s Sorrow”?

The major theme of the poem is divine compassion and empathy. It also taps on the themes of innocence, compassion, and fellow feeling.

Which bird is mentioned in the poem “On Another’s Sorrow”?

In this poem, Blake refers to a wren.

Who is “He” being referred to in the poem “On Another’s Sorrow”?

“He” is none other than the “Maker” of humankind, God.

Which quality of god is especially emphasized in the poem “On Another’s Sorrow”?

The qualities of compassion and love are especially emphasized in this poem.


Similar Poems about Divine Empathy

  • “Laugh and Be Merry” by John Masefield — This poem taps on the themes of being happy. Masefield explores this theme by referring to the motif of God in creating this world.
  • “The Awakening” by James Weldon Johnson — In this piece, Johnson describes how God’s presence in the form of a bee helped him to be spiritually awakened.
  • “The Bird Sanctuary” by Sarojini Naidu — This piece describes the poet’s wish to reside in God’s sanctuary, filled with divine love and compassion.
  • “When my play was with thee” by Rabindranath Tagore — In this poem, Tagore employs the theme of innocence.


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