On Another’s Sorrow

June 27, 2022

William Blake’s poem “On Another’s Sorrow” is the last in his Songs of Innocence. It’s a long-time favourite of mine, and lately, because when I’ve not been comforting crying youngsters I’ve been nursing a baby bird back to health, it has been coming to mind frequently. I took some time to explore musical settings of the poem, and today I’d like to share a few.

First, let’s look at the poem briefly.

On Another’s Sorrow

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

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?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

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 —

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

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.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled an gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

It falls into three sections, each of three stanzas. In the first we have the picture of the parents attending their child; in the second, the scene widens to consider God’s care of the world; and in the third, an affirmation of God’s solicitude toward those who suffer. The poem uses repetition very effectively: the prevalence of “can” questions in the first stanzas, the repetition of “hear” in the second section, and of “He” in the third. There are a variety of parallelisms that make the whole thing hold together really well. I can testify that when once memorized it rolls off the tongue easily.

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Now let’s turn to some musical settings.

I think I first heard Greg Brown’s setting at least 25 years ago. His 1986 record, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, was the means by which I had my first introduction to Blake’s poetry, and I’m particularly fond of the music for this poem. (I add parenthetically that this record, though little-known, is a treasure, and highly recommended to everyone.) Brown captures the building momentum of the short lines very well. It goes like this:

Isn’t that wonderful?

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The other folksy setting I found — that I liked — is by a group calling themselves simply Blake. This is the only song I’ve been able to find from them, so how and why this song came about is a bit of a mystery. But it is an effective setting of the poem, capturing the sorrow better than Brown’s setting does, and featuring some lovely harmonizations.

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There have been quite a number of “high art” settings of the poem too. I think there’s a tension between the home-spun simplicity of the poetry and the trappings of high art, but let’s take a look at some attempts to join the two.

John Sykes was an Englishman (d.1962) who taught music and composed where and when he could; almost all of his music, including a substantial number of William Blake settings, was unpublished at his death and has only slowly found its way onto recordings. This setting of “On Another’s Sorrow”, for soprano and piano, is quite lovely. There’s nothing overly complicated about it — although the pianist cannot be a slouch! — and the musical structure respects the structure of the poem. I like this very much:

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If that is a fairly minimal arrangement — just voice and piano — then at the opposite end of the spectrum, at the maximalist extreme, we find William Bolcom’s setting. Bolcom is an American composer who has produced a big body of often very interesting music, and his gigantic Songs of Innocence and of Experience is no exception. At about 2-1/12 hours in length, it’s big, bold, and brash, drawing on all manner of music traditions: big band, jazz, classical, even rock, and he gives it to a big orchestra and choir and a horde of soloists.

The setting of “On Another’s Sorrow” is only about 2 minutes long, but it captures the Bolcomian excess well enough. The herky-jerky rhythms are bizarre and the tune is maybe a little hard to remember. I don’t much like it, but it at least has the virtue of having character. Here we go!

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But the best choral setting I found was by an American composer named Shawn Kirchner.  He captures the rhythms of the poem extremely well, and the choral writing is unfailingly lovely. It is been recently recorded by LA Choral Lab. (I can’t find it on YouTube, but I can embed this link to Spotify. If you have a Spotify account you’ll be able to hear the whole thing; if not, only 30 seconds, which is too bad.)

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