He Doth Sit By Us and Moan

Daniel Bonnell, "Jesus Wept"

Daniel Bonnell, “Jesus Wept”

Last week I was honored by my friend Jean Yeatman when she asked me to sit with her at her mother’s deathbed. We talked about childhood excursions that our families took together and also about the importance of ritual in our lives. Today’s William Blake poem is for her and her brother Clay.

Blake finds something heavenly in the sorrow we feel for another. We know God grieves for us because we see something holy within the sadness we ourselves feel in the presence of human suffering. Blake’s poem reminds me of a line from “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” a 19th century hymn and one of my favorites: 

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven…

In the shortest sentence in The New Testament, we are told that “Jesus wept” over the death of Lazarus. Blake’s poem reminds us that we are not alone:

On Another’s Sorrow

By William Blake

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 next,
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 and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

I like the reference to the wren as both Jean’s mother and father were biologists and bird lovers and wrote a weekly nature column for the local newspaper. They would not, however, approve of Blake eliding wrens with sparrows (or so I believe). Blake surely has in mind Jesus’s assurance of Matthew 10:29-30:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.

A note on the artist: Daniel Bonnelli’s art can be found in two books: The Road Home by Garth Hewitt and The Christian Vision of God by Alister McGrath and can be seen on his website www.BonnellArt.com. More information can be found at http://www.liturgyplanningimages.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=188&Itemid=134.


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  • Susan Schmidt

    Love, lovely. A new poem for me, Robin. Here’s another verse that Blake is probably referencing. It comes from Isaiah…

    “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15)

    I love the many images of God as feminine in the Bible – Jesus talks about wanting to comfort Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks. The Psalms talk about God as a mistress (to her maidservant) and as a mother. Of course, you know that “feminine” is just a construct. Men have the capacity to be just as compassionate as women, as you demonstrate so aptly.

  • Robin

    I didn’t know this Isaiah passage at all, Sue, but I am in no doubt that Blake knew it well. I also didn’t know about the hen passage and had to look it up:

    O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (Matt 23:37)

    Thanks for adding these references to my life. Blake processes the Bible as well as any poet I know.

  • Jean H. Yeatman

    My role was keeping Mom comfortable while Being Present for her. Rather than taking her own power away, I acted as a midwife to her dying process.

  • Robin

    You mentioned at one point, Jean, that being a mother had helped prepare you for this moment, which I found profoundly moving. I was impressed by how strong you seemed. You reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in Anna Karenina, where Kitty Levin pushes her husband aside when he feels helpless in the presence of his dying brother. She has seemed almost girlish before but now she steps into the full powers of womanhood. Your mother was very lucky to have you.

  • Jean H. Yeatman

    Wow, thanks for the validation, Robin. I was Blessed to have Hospice and Mom’s other helpers who affirmed and helped implement my care efforts. I have never been surrounded by such a nurturing sisterhood. Now that I am back home, I want to be part of a small group with the same spiritual energy.

  • Jean H. Yeatman

    Here is another reference to Isaiah which was in a condolence card sent to us:

    Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.
    Isaiah 53:4 NKJV

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