On Another's Sorrow - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Blake drew on Christian images that he knew his readers would recognise. Here, he uses images drawn from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah and from the Gospels.

Can a mother … - This echoes the question set by Isaiah as he sought to demonstrate God's commitment to his people (Isaiah 49:13-16). The response to this is an implicit ‘no', but even if that were to happen, God's love is more certain – He can never forget those he loves. The Isaiah reference indicates a lack of illusion concerning human failings. This contrasts with the possible naivety of the speaker's response.

And can he who smiles … bird's grief and care – This refers to another image of God's continual benevolent care for the whole of creation. Jesus said that not even the smallest bird dies without God noticing it (Matthew 10:29), and even the most insignificant bird is still fed by him (Matthew 6:26).

Weeping tear on infant's tear – In the New Testament, Paul enjoins Christians to ‘weep with those who weep' (Romans 12:15) as a demonstration of the love they have received from God. The shortest (and therefore well known) verse in the Bible depicts Jesus weeping in the face of human grief (John 11: 33-36).

Wiping all our tears away – Blake is alluding to the promise of God's victory over evil and suffering described in the vision of Revelation (Revelation 7:17, Revelation 21:4).

He becomes an infant small – This alludes to the Christian belief that God entered human life in the shape of the child Jesus. Another name for him was Emmanuel, ‘God with us' (Matthew 1:23), emphasising God's identification with humanity.

A man of woe – Echoing Isaiah 53:3, Christian tradition portrays Jesus as the ‘Man of Sorrows', carrying the pain of all humanity. Suffering does not disappear but is entered into by God.

Our grief he may destroy – Christians believe that, having entered into human suffering, Jesus then deals with its cause - humankind's rebellion against God:

  • By dying as a punishment for human sin, he rescues humanity from the consequences of sin (eternal separation from God)
  • By then rising from the dead, he defeats the power of death and evil (ensuring eternal life for those who put their faith in him).

Til our grief is fled … sit by us - Christians hold on to the final fulfilment of Christ's victory over evil at the end of time. Meanwhile, they live in a fallen world that contains suffering, but are comforted by Jesus sharing in their experience

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • How do the biblical references (see above) affect the significance of the poem?


Aspects of innocence

Innocence makes itself vulnerable by its inability to recognise failure and ‘woe' in human life. The force of response to the first rhetorical questions can be seen as either an inability to recognise parental failure or an unwillingness to do so.

But innocence also allows another vision of a God who is not an external ruler and law-giver, beyond human experience. Instead, he is close to human beings because of the Incarnation and his ongoing presence with - and within – humans. Consequently, it introduces the theme of the nature of the world and of its maker.

Parental care and authority

The parents presented here are full of sympathy for the misfortunes of their offspring, which, it is implied, they would seek to alleviate.

God in man's image

Unlike in many of the Songs, Blake does not seem to suggest here that the perception of God as compassionate is a false or one-sided view, but that there is a real integration of human and divine attributes.

Investigating themes

  • Compare the use of the theme of the nature of the world and of its maker in this poem with its use in The Lamb.
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