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The Blind Men and the Elephant -- John Godfrey Saxe

Guest poem sent in by Raj Bandyopadhyay
(Poem #1179) The Blind Men and the Elephant
 It was six men of Indostan
 To learning much inclined,
 Who went to see the Elephant
 (Though all of them were blind),
 That each by observation
 Might satisfy his mind

 The First approached the Elephant,
 And happening to fall
 Against his broad and sturdy side,
 At once began to bawl:
 God bless me! but the Elephant
 Is very like a wall!

 The Second, feeling of the tusk,
 Cried, Ho! what have we here
 So very round and smooth and sharp?
 To me tis mighty clear
 This wonder of an Elephant
 Is very like a spear!

 The Third approached the animal,
 And happening to take
 The squirming trunk within his hands,
 Thus boldly up and spake:
 I see, quoth he, the Elephant
 Is very like a snake!

 The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
 And felt about the knee.
 What most this wondrous beast is like
 Is mighty plain, quoth he;
 'Tis clear enough the Elephant
 Is very like a tree!

 The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
 Said: Even the blindest man
 Can tell what this resembles most;
 Deny the fact who can
 This marvel of an Elephant
 Is very like a fan!?

 The Sixth no sooner had begun
 About the beast to grope,
 Than, seizing on the swinging tail
 That fell within his scope,
 I see, quoth he, the Elephant
 Is very like a rope!

 And so these men of Indostan
 Disputed loud and long,
 Each in his own opinion
 Exceeding stiff and strong,
 Though each was partly in the right,
 And all were in the wrong!

 Moral:

 So oft in theologic wars,
 The disputants, I ween,
 Rail on in utter ignorance
 Of what each other mean,
 And prate about an Elephant
 Not one of them has seen!
-- John Godfrey Saxe
Just one of those masterpieces which everyone has heard and no one really
thinks of submitting! Anyway, all the versions I've heard before did not
include the last "Moral" passage. 'Extended Edition' !!!!

The moral is so apt in modern times, with religious disputes setting the
planet on fire. Having been the 'justifiable' (I'm Hindu by birth, and
don't really care about religion) target of righteous right-winged
evangelists in the US who argue about how they know exactly what God
wanted to make of the world, I could not agree more with the poet.

This is supposed to be based on a fable from India. I would be curious to
know more about the exact origins though.

My favorite line: the one for the fifth guy, who starts with "Even the
blindest man..." So poignant in the context of religious disputes!

[Martin adds]

Raj is right - I can't believe we've not run this one yet. A true classic,
and one beloved of generations of schoolteachers (and schoolkids - it's a
very accessible poem for younger kids, rhythmic, visual, funny and
memorable). I'd be hard pressed to call this a great poem (it's *too*
simplistic, IMO, and the rhymes and rhythms too singsong), but it has, I
think, achieved a deserved immortality.

74 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Rebecca said...

Thanks for adding the moral. I've never seen this part before.
Could you now send out Abou Ben Adhem? I forget the poet's name.
It would be a suitable follow up.

Knaub1977 said...

This poem was just mentioned in a discussion by Ray Chambers at the Joint
Statistical Meetings in San Francisco (August 2003) with regard to understanding
of a statistical technique (calibration).

This poem has obvious relevance to world peace, but sticking with the
statistical relevance, I hope to convince people at my office that it is better to
rely on good statistical methodology than on one or two "expert opinions."
Subject matter expertise is often important, but statistics should be the focus of
a "statistical agency" that is doing surveys, and, incredibly, at my office,
it isn't.

Abbie Benkeser said...

Some fifty plus years ago I first read this poem to my children. I was
found in a series of books that the publishers of the Encyclopedia
Britannica published for children. I think the series were called
Childcraft. They were a pure delight. The last stanza of the Elephant
and the blind men poem, the moral of the story was included at that
time. The poem is simply incomplete without it!

Abbie

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite poems next The Road Not Taken.

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This is a traditional Indian story. The earliest recorded versions appear in Jain and Buddhist scriptures.

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dude if i was blind and i had an elephant man i would.......lets just say there would be lots of human-elephant babies that would kill people and use their blood as lubricant >:D

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This is supposed to be based on a fable from India. I would be curious to know more about the exact origins though play

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