The Blind Men and the Elephant
By John Godfrey Saxe
A Hindoo Fable
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 ‘t is 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 his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en 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!
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!
About the Poem and the Parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant:
The parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant originated in the ancient Indian subcontinent, from where it has been widely diffused. It is a story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest, and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.
An alternate version of the parable describes sighted men, experiencing a large statue on a dark night, or feeling a large object while being blindfolded. They then describe what it is they have experienced. In its various versions, it is a parable that has crossed between many religious traditions and is part of Jain, Hindu and Buddhist texts of 1st millennium CE or before. The story also appears in 2nd millennium Sufi and Bahá’í lore. The tale later became well known in Europe, with 19th century American poet John Godfrey Saxe creating his own version as a poem, with a final verse that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God, and the various blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced. Natalie Merchant sang this poem in full on her Leave Your Sleep album (Disc 1, track 13). The story has been published in many books for adults and children and interpreted in a variety of ways.
About the Poet:
John Godfrey Saxe was born on June 2, 1816, in Highgate, Vermont. He was born on his family’s farm, Saxe’s Mills, to Peter Saxe, a miller and judge, and Elizabeth Jewett. In 1835, Saxe went to Wesleyan University. After only a year, he transferred to Middlebury College, where he graduated in 1839. In 1841, he married Sophia Newell Sollace, whom Saxe had met through a classmate. Together they had a son, John Theodore Saxe.
In 1843, Saxe was admitted to the Vermont bar association. Saxe continued to work in the legal field in Franklin County. In 1850, he became the state’s attorney for Chittenden County. From 1850-1856, Saxe served as the editor of the Sentinel in Burlington, Vermont, and in 1856, he served as the attorney-general of Vermont. Legal work did not hold Saxe’s attention through this period, however. He began publishing poems for a literary magazine in New York, The Knickerbocker. His poems gained the attention of a Boston publishing house, Ticknor and Fields, and his first volume of poetry ran for ten reprintings.
His poetry also could be serious and somber, such as a ballad he wrote about the sad death of the man who ran the sawmill on his father’s property. Probably Saxe’s most notable achievement as a poet was introducing western audiences to the fable of “The Blind Men and The Elephant.” In total, he published nine volumes of his poetry, and it was collected and republished many times. He died in 1887 in Albany, N.Y.
Saxe became a highly sought-after speaker. He toured and wrote prolifically throughout the 1850s. In 1859, Saxe ran for governor of Vermont. He lost due to his Democratic learning, particularly on issues of slavery and his support of “popular sovereignty.” Following his defeat, he left Vermont for Albany, New York, in 1860, where he continued to contribute articles for Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The Knickerbocker. After moving to New York, his life suffered from a series of tribulations.
The death of his oldest brother in 1867 made Saxe’s already unsteady temperament even more erratic. His son took control of the family’s finances and business interests. Starting the 1870s, Saxe experienced a series of unfortunate events. In the earlier part of the decade, his youngest daughter died of tuberculosis. In 1875, he suffered head injuries from which he never fully recovered. Over the next several years, his two oldest daughters, his oldest son, and his daughter-in-law also died of tuberculosis. In 1879, his wife died from a burst blood vessel in her brain. Saxe began to suffer from a deep depression. Saxe eventually died in 1887. The New York State Assembly, sympathizing with the poet’s swift decline, ordered Saxe’s likeness to be chiseled into the “poet’s corner” of the Great Western Staircase in the New York State Capitol.