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The Scottish poet Charles Mackay’s “Sympathy” is a fable-like poem with a strong moral lesson. The speaker, suffering from illness and poverty, receives help from two different people: a “proud man” who gives the speaker money (but very little kindness), and a “poor man” who tends to the speaker with grace, selflessness, and empathetic understanding. The poem concludes that, though “gold” is admittedly “great,” “heavenly sympathy” is far superior. “Sympathy” was first collected in Songs for Music in 1858 and, as the title suggests, was meant to be sung as a lyric.
I lay in sorrow, deep depressed... My grief a proud man heard... His looks were cold. He gave me gold. But not a kindly word .
In these lines, the poet describes an incident where he was lying on the ground. Perhaps he was injured. In any case, it is clear that he was experiencing some suffering. As a result, he was sorrowful and depressed. He needed help. As he was crying out in his grief, a proud man heard the sound of his voice and stopped to help him.
The poet could figure out that he prided himself on his wealth because the only way in which that man helped him was to provide him with money to get himself treated. Apart from that, there was no emotion as such on the man’s face. He did not speak to the poet at all and did not try to console him either.
My sorrow passed - I paid him back The gold he gave to me. Then stood erect and spoke my thanks And blessed his charity...
In these lines, the poet described what happened to him after he had recovered from the previously described incident. He says that his bad time had come to an end, and he was able to repay the man who had helped him in the form of returning the money he had lent the poet.
After repaying him, the poet stood upright with his head help high and thanked him. In addition to this, the poet offered the man what he had not offered the poet – a kind word. The poet tells the man that God will certainly reward him for his charity.
I lay in want, and grief and pain. A poor man passed my way. He bound my head. He gave me bread. He watched me night and day .
In these lines, the poet describes an incident that is very similar to the one he had described at the beginning of the poem. He says that he had been lying on the ground, injured as before. He was as sad as he had been back then. He was also in a lot of pain. He desperately wanted some help.
A poor man was walking by that place, and he stopped to help the poet. Instead of giving the poet money as the proud man had, he bandaged the poet’s injured head and gave him some food and drink to restore his health. He stayed by the poet’s bedside in the daytime as well as the nighttime till he had recovered fully.
How shall I pay him back again For all he did to me? Oh! Gold is great. But greater far Is heavenly sympathy!
In these lines, the poet wonders how he will pay back the poor man who had taken such good care of him. He owes the man something much more complex than a pile of notes or coins. What he owes the man isn’t even anything that has a physical manifestation. Therefore, it won’t be easy to repay the man.
This is when the poet comes to a great realization. He understands that the value of sympathy is much more than that of money. Money can certainly help you out in your time of need, but sympathy from a fellow being can lift your spirits and give you the strength to fight against extenuating circumstances. No one can put a price tag on sympathy, for it is invaluable.
This poem pivots around is that empathy and cordial sincerity is the most necessary thing for a man in distress. Material aid may help him overcome the crisis but makes him an in debt to the person who shows charity to him and he resolves to meet the pride of the giver by standing ‘erect’ and giving back the ‘gold’.
But sympathetic words and behavior heal up the wound from within; the receiver feels that this act of kindness does not give birth in him a sense of humiliation and that he can never return it with any word of gratitude.