On Another's SorrowLanguage, tone and structure

Language and tone

The use of emotive rhetorical questions immediately engages the reader in the speaker's argument. The adamant, repeated negatives, emphasised by caesura and exclamation-mark, are passionate answers in defence of humanity's goodness (unless interpreted as reluctance of the speaker to look squarely at reality).

The whole of the poem is written in the present or present continuous tense. This has two effects:

  • It suggests the permanent nature of the human response – it is now because it always has been and will be
  • It speaks of God as ever-present. For example, Jesus did not become a child, a finished, past action. He becomes one. It suggests he is always becoming a child in the children who are born today and on any day.

There are many examples of repetition of structure or phrases:

  • ‘Can I see', ‘never can it be', ‘Hear the …', ‘And not …', ‘He doth …'.

Similarly, words associated with sadness are given emphatic force through repetition:

  • ‘woe/s' (x 3), ‘sorrow/s' (x 5), ‘grief' (x 4), ‘tear/s' (x 4), ‘weep/ing' (x 3), groan, moan, sigh, fear.

Blake's argument is served by many of these words being attributed to God as well as people, with the rhyme of the child's ‘groan' being matched by Christ's ‘moan'.

Investigating language and tone

  • Try changing the tense to the past tense and then compare the two versions
    • What do you find?

Structure and versification

A regular rhythm of trochaic tetrameter is established. Its metrical smoothness highlights the disruption caused by the monosyllabic spondees of ‘No, no,' and ‘O, no,' in the third lines of stanzas three and six, emphasising the rejection of the ideas raised.

The poem falls into three sections:

  • The first is the set of rhetorical questions regarding human sympathy, which are rejected
  • The second is a repetition of rhetorical questions regarding God's sympathy for living beings, which are rejected in similar terms
  • The third section portrays God's empathy with humanity
  • The repeated ‘never can it be,' of the first two sections forms a kind of refrain, which is then contrasted with the closing couplet of the third section. This illustrates God's response to the question of suffering. The ‘never, never can it be!' is matched with an implicit ‘ever' – God can never be indifferent to his children, but will ever be with them, ‘Till our grief is fled and gone.'

The closed rhyming couplets suggest the contained and complete nature of the thoughts within them. We are invited to accept, rather than to argue with, the statements. This is enhanced by the patterning of repetitions with difference, which have a cumulative, persuasive effect e.g. ‘And thy maker is not by … And thy maker is not near.'

Investigating structure and versification

  • The poem has a regular and patterned structure, yet conveys the impression of a passionate speaking voice
    • What techniques does Blake use to achieve this?
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.