This one nearly speaks for itself – it asks the question many of us ask of those who seem to take a perverse joy at the suffering of others. Over and over, in the face of laws and judgments that seek to punish the victims, the oppressed, the suffering, we ask of those people: what if it were your daughter? what if it were your child? what if you were in need of sanctuary? what if you had nothing to eat, no roof, no comfort?
And, discomfortingly, these are questions we have been asking for centuries, if not millennia. William Blake’s poem, “On Another’s Sorrow”, from which our hymn is deftly crafted, asked this in the 18th century. How hard-hearted have humans been! How cold, calculating, and disdainful humans have been!
And this makes me weep. In my heart of hearts, I believe that humans are essentially good, that we are born good. And yet, over and over, there is evidence not only that evil exists in the world but also that some may have a propensity for it – or at least a lack of empathy that allows evil to flourish. This, more than anything, is what causes my weltschmerz – my world weariness.
This hymn – and the longer Blake poem – are intended to swell the mystic chords of memory by the better angels of our nature. To me, the hymn is a sad, haunting reminder of how few actually hear those mystic chords.
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
infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no, never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
The tune is another favorite – another delicious melody from the 16th century. Its minor key and flowing lines are solemn and bittersweet. A perfect match for these words.
The image is also by William Blake, illustrations created for an illuminated edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Learn more here.