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I Sat Down and Wept

Samira Ahmed explores the ambiguous power of tears in myth and music.

Samira Ahmed explores the ambiguous power of tears in myth and music.

Weeping is a pivotal act in cultures across the world and throughout history.

The Israelites recalling the promised land by the River Euphrates; Niobe condemned to eternal mourning for her lost children, transformed into a rocky waterfall; Picasso's Dora Marr transformed into the iconic weeping woman, the embodiment of suffering in wartime; King Lear railing against his treacherous tears that "un -man him".

Writers, theologians, scientists, psychologists have been fascinated for centuries by tears and what they reveal about human emotion and human experience.

Tears are paradoxical - they are produced by laughter and by sadness, are understood as both a sign of weakness and of strength and, perhaps most confusingly, are used as evidence of the veracity of an experience or of the falseness of a witness, who weeps 'crocodile tears'.

Weeping is powerful, endlessly fascinating to many, but still not fully understood.

Samira Ahmed considers some for the ways tears have been represented in culture, music and religion. She discusses masculinity, politics and tears with poet Andrew McMillan. She explores different culturally acceptable ways of grieving. In the wake of public displays of mourning for public figures, such as Princess Diana and David Bowie, has the UK moved from having a stiff upper lip to a teary eye?

The programme includes writing by Lewis Carroll, John Donne and William Shakespeare, poetry by Grace Nichols and Les Murray, and music by Nick Cave, and Debussy.

The readers were Rachel Atkins and Peter Marinker

Producer: Lucy Dichmont
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4.

30 minutes

Last on

Sun 13 Mar 2016 23:30

Music Played

  • Claude Debussy

    La Mer: II. Jeux de vague

    Performer: Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Alfred Scholz.
    • Les plus grands romantiques.
    • Columbia.
    • 5.
  • Grantley Marshall, Liz Fraser, Robert Del Naja & Andrew Vowles


    Performer: Massive Attack.
    • Mezzanine.
    • EMI.
    • 3.
  • The Byrds

    Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)

    • Turn! Turn! Turn!.
    • Columbia Legacy.
    • 1.
  • Nick Cave

    The Weeping Song

    Performer: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
    • The best of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
    • Reprise / Wea.
    • 13.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

    Requiem Mass in D Minor, K. 626: VII. Lacrimosa

    Performer: David Parry, London Philharmonic Choir & London Philharmonic Orchestra.
    • The 50 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music.
    • Decca (UMO).
    • 27.
  • John Williams

    Suo Gan

    Performer: John Williams.
    • Empire of the Sun, Original Motion picture soundtrack..
    • Warner Bros.
    • 1.
  • Arthur Hamilton

    Cry Me a River

    Performer: Julie London.
    • The Very Best of Sad Songs.
    • EMI TV.
    • 18.


Title: Alice in the pool of tears

Synopsis:  Alice slips and nearly drowns in a pool of tears she cried when she grew to 9 feet high

Author: Lewis Carroll

From: Alice in Wonderland

Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books (5 Feb. 2015)

Title: Luke 24 10-11

Synopsis: Weeping women appear at key moments in the Bible. Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary's tears are seen as evidence of the truth of the resurrection.

Author: N/A

From: New English Bible

Title: Niobe

Synopsis: Niobe was punished by Zeus for pride in her family by the deaths of her children.  She is condemned to eternal sorrow by being transformed into a crying rock: A waterfall

Author: John Donne

From: various

Title: Jeremiah 9 v 17-22

Synopsis: Weeping women often represent the power of the release of grief

Author: N/a

From: New English Bible

Title: (Extract from) Weeping Woman:  Picasso, I Want My Face Back

Synopsis:  Picasso's former lover Dora Marr reflects on the artist's iconic ravaged portrait of her.

Author: Grace Nichols

From: Weeping Woman:  Picasso, I Want My Face Back

Publisher: Bloodaxe Books (2009)

Title: Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

Synopsis: A reading chosen for many funerals, apparently inspired by a German Jewish girl visiting the poet in America in the 1930s

Author: Mary Elizabeth Frye

From: various - un-copyrighted published widely on internet

Title: A Widower in the Country & Nick Cave's introduction to the poem

Synopsis: A poem revolving around the unmentioned death of a farmer's wife, and his attempts to continue his everyday life, despite his unacknowledged emotional anguish.

Author: Les Murray

From: Poems that Make Grown Men Cry

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Title: King Lear

Synopsis:  King Lear bemoans his misplaced trust in his treacherous daughters.

Author: William Shakespeare

From: various publishers

Title: The Men are weeping in the Gym

Synopsis:  A poem exploring the tensions of modern masculinity and emotional repression.

Author: Andrew McMillan

From: Physical

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2015)