‘On Joy and Sorrow’ by Kahlil Gibran is a brief poetic essay from the poet’s best-selling book, The Prophet.
This poem explores the complex relationship between happiness and sadness, touching on the importance of contrast and relativity when considering one’s emotional and spiritual well-being.
On Joy and Sorrow Khalil GibranThen a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.And he answered:Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.And how else can it be?The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.Some of you say, "Joy is greater thar sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."But I say unto you, they are inseparable.Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
Explore On Joy and Sorrow
‘On Joy and Sorrow’ by Kahlil Gibran is about the unbreakable connection between joy and sorrow.
The poetic essay ‘On Joy and Sorrow’ begins with a woman asking the speaker, Almustafa, to speak of joy and sorrow. Almustafa explains that joy is essentially the same being as sorrow.
However, while sorrow comes from the same emotional well as joy, sorrow is a masked form of joy. The speaker next fully develops his ideas about the connection between sorrow and joy, explaining that the greater one’s sorrow is, the more joy one will feel when they are relieved of that sorrow.
The speaker next uses metaphor to illustrate the way that sorrow makes room for joy. Using the symbol of a clay cup, the speaker expresses that before the cup may become full, it must endure the scorching heat of a kiln. In the same way, a person must feel intense sorrow or stress before they may become capable of feeling joy.
In this way, the speaker expresses that joy arises when one is relieved from sorrow.
He next compares how a lute must undergo sorrow by losing its form, being carved away, and being put under stress before it becomes a musical instrument. Still, once it becomes an instrument, it is full of music, which represents joy.
The speaker asks the listener to look into their heart, and they will discover everything that has ever brought them sorrow is also a source of joy.
The speaker, in conclusion, states that joy and sorrow are inseparable and that the only way to rid oneself of sorrow is to eliminate all joy from life.
Form and Structure
‘On Joy and Sorrow’ is a poetic essay. Gibran was one of the earliest champions of this verse form, which, at first glance, looks just like prose. However, the poetic essay is a unique poetic form in which meditation, art, and diction are given the most importance.
For example, in a prose essay, the author must think about logic first and foremost. First, one must develop a hypothesis and thesis, then make and support a claim.
Poetic essays, on the other hand, are not constrained by logic. Instead, they serve emotions above all. As such, a poetic essay will have shorter lines or paragraphs, more poetic devices, and more emotional appeal than a prose essay.
‘On Joy and Sorrow’ is one of the 28 poems in Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet, first published in 1923. This book begins as a hermit-like prophet, Almustafa, prepares to leave Orphalese, where he has lived as a spiritual pilgrim for 12 years. However, as his ship approaches, he encounters a “seeress” named Almitra, who asks him to tell her about what he has learned from the people in Orphalese.
The poems within the book are Almustafa’s replies to Almitra’s and the townspeople’s questions. As such, each poem expresses the prophet’s spiritual understanding of the world and its people.
Gibran uses many metaphors in ‘On Joy And Sorrow.’ For example, in the line “selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears,” Gibran uses metaphor to compare the source of one’s emotions to a well. This well holds both joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, indicating that all feeling, whether sad or happy, comes from the same place in one’s mind.
The prophet-speaker Almustafa also poses several rhetorical questions. His frequent inquiries help to remind the listener that the speaker is genuinely speaking to a group of people. This paints an image of the speaker surrounded by a crowd, holding a sort of inspirational speech or sermon.
These questions also make the speaker much more empathetic and trustworthy, as they anticipate the inquiries of his listeners. Instead of arrogantly plodding on with his speech, he stops to consider the people around him frequently. This thoughtfulness is fitting for an enlightened and compassionate holy man like Almustafa.
Additionally, the interconnectedness of joy and sorrow in this poem creates an oxymoron. Joy and sorrow seem to be polar opposites, but therein lies their close relationship, according to this poem.
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
At the opening of ‘On Joy and Sorrow’ by Kahlil Gibran, an unnamed woman asks the poem’s speaker to discuss the nature of joy and sorrow. Without pause, the speaker, Almustafa, answers her.
The speaker immediately offers a slightly confusing statement: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.”
This point indicates that the speaker believes joy and sorrow are essentially the same things. The only difference between these two emotions is that sorrow masks joy, covering up all the good stuff with its presence.
Next, using a metaphor, the speaker compares human emotions to a well. This well is where both joy and sorrow live, as indicated by the “laughter” and “tears” that exist there.
This metaphor illustrates that sorrow is like water, or tears, that fill a person’s emotional “well.” While the well may overflow with sorrow sometimes, when the water recedes down to the bottom of the well, it makes room for the echoes of laughter and joyful wishes.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Lines seven through twelve of ‘On Joy and Sorrow’ by Kahlil Gibran consist of several metaphors that depict the relationship between joy and sorrow.
The speaker uses the images of two man-made items, a clay cup, and a lute, to indicate that everything must undergo stress and sorrow before it can contain joy. Under these comparisons, joy is like music or wine, while sorrow is like fire and loss.
These metaphors illustrate that Sorrow is an absence of something. Just as sorrow burns and hollows natural materials, it leaves one feeling empty. However, joy fills the void that sorrow leaves behind, producing music and sustenance.
Because of this relationship between joy and sorrow, the speaker indicates that one cannot exist without the other. Additionally, it offers hope to those who feel sorrow, as all pain and loss come with the promise of later joy and fulfillment.
The speaker also seems to indicate that sorrow is the loss of what causes joy. For example, if one takes joy in music or wine, and the music and wine are both gone, that sorrow is a result of joy. One cannot long for something that one has never known or experienced. In this way, joy cannot exist without causing some sort of sorrow.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater thar sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
In lines 13 through 16 of ‘On Joy and Sorrow,’ the speaker anticipates the responses of his audience. He claims that, although some people believe that either joy or sorrow is more intense, he indicates that these emotions are equal.
When joy is greater, sorrow may be less present. However, when that is the case, sorrow is just lingering on the sidelines, waiting for its turn to take center stage.
This dichotomy creates a contrast between joy and sorrow, but it also necessitates a close connection between both emotions. They work together, creating a foil for each other and always ebbing and flowing in each other’s favor.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
In lines 17 through 20 of ‘On Joy and Sorrow,’ the speaker uses another metaphor to illustrate the interconnectedness of joy and sorrow. According to the speaker, joy and sorrow always balance each other out. However, the only way to ever have the exact same amount of these emotions is to feel neither.
Under this reasoning, only those who feel completely detached from the world and their emotions can live a life without sorrow. However, in this state of detachment, one can never feel joy, either.
‘On Joy and Sorrow’ is a type of poem called a poetic essay. These poems use poetic devices but don’t have a metrical structure or rhyme scheme. Additionally, they usually appeal to logical arguments for or against something but use literary devices to prove their point.
The tone in ‘On Joy and Sorrow‘ is contemplative, compassionate, and educational. As the speaker, Almustafa details the relationship between joy and sorrow for his audience and he uses plain English and rhetorical questions to make his point easy to understand. Although the poem is didactic and teaches a lesson, the speaker makes this lesson approachable through his use of metaphor.
The central message of ‘On Joy and Sorrow’ by Kahlil Gibran is that joy cannot exist without some amount of sorrow, and vice versa. The relationship between these emotions is always in flux, each one growing while the other decreases. However, a person cannot feel one without incurring the other.
The line “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked” means that sorrow is a mask that joy wears. This comparison indicates that sorrow is joy in disguise. The things that bring us joy will eventually fade, making us feel sorrowful and mournful. Thus, when a person feels joy, sorrow will eventually take its place.
While ‘On Joy and Sorrow’ by Kahlil Gibran uses the innovative form of a poetic essay to express spiritual thoughts, this poem is exceedingly Romantic. The dichotomy between joy and sorrow, with a focus on emotional and spiritual well-being, is typical of Romantic poetry from poets such as Keats and Shelley.
Some poems that discuss similar themes as Kahlil Gibran’s ‘On Joy and Sorrow’ include:
- ‘Ode on Melancholy’ by John Keats – Keat’s Romantic ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is essentially the same poem as ‘On Joy and Sorrow.’ While Keats uses strict form and more eloquent words, both poems are very much about how joy and sorrow are two faces of the same coin.
- ‘Mutability’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley – a description of the variable nature of our world and the fleeting lives of human beings.
- ‘On Another’s Sorrow’ by William Blake describes the love God has for the world and how it has inspired the speaker to act similarly.