The publication details of this poem are not known. However, what we do know about it is that its form is rather innovative for its time and that its message is one for all times. This poem describes a single event and two outcomes of that very event. Therefore, it provides multiple endings to the same story at a time when all narratives were linear and had closed endings in the 19th century. The poem also shows how human sympathy is worth far more than money. This is something that readers from all epochs can relate to.
About the poet:
Charles Mackay was a Scottish poet, journalist, and songwriter.
He was born in Perth, Scotland, on 27th March 1814. He spent much of his early life in France. Coming to London in 1834, he engaged in journalism.
Mackay published Songs and Poems (1834), wrote a History of London, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), and a romance, Longbeard. He is also remembered for his Dictionary of Lowland Scotch. During his lifetime, his fame chiefly rested upon his songs, some of which, including “Cheer, Boys, Cheer,” was set to music by Henry Russell in 1846 and had an astonishing popularity.
Mackay first visited and published his observations about America as Life and Liberty in America: or Sketches of a Tour of the United States and Canada in 1857-58 (1859). He returned to act as Times correspondent during the American Civil War, and in that capacity, discovered and disclosed the Fenian conspiracy.
Mackay died in London on 24th December 1889.
His poem is set at a difficult time in the poet’s life. At this time, the poet was injured and lying by the side of the road. In the absence of any human company, he was distressed. He was also in great pain, both physically and mentally. The poet goes on to describe two different resolutions to this setting. Both of these resolutions are contrasts to each other, and his message is conveyed through the device of this very contrast in the scenario.
The poem consists of 16 lines in total. These lines are not divided into stanzas. Here they are divided into meaningful segments for the purposes of this summary in order to make the poem easier to follow and understand. This poem is written in the first person. Hence we can assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet himself.
Lines 1 – 4:
“I lay in sorrow, deep depressed…
My grief a proud man heard…
His looks were cold. He gave me gold.
But not a kind 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.
Lines 5 – 8:
“My sorrow passed – I paid him back.
The gold he gave 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.
Lines 9 – 12:
“I lay in want, in 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.
Lines 13 – 16:
“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.
Other than the Sympathy: Summary, you can also refer to Analysis and Theme of Sympathy for a better understanding of the poem.