Thursday, August 6, 2020

Poem Spot:: The Bind Men and the Elephant

Time for another poem, dear readers, this one about the classic story of the blind men and the elephant, in its way as illuminating and iconic as the Three Wise Monkeys.   My recollection is that it has previously been posted in Bytes.

The narrative is set long ago when knowledge and experiences were more limited, when a number of blind men had heard of a wondrous animal that had been brought to their village, an elephant.  Each sets out to find out what this reportedly amazing animal looks like and each feels a different part of the elephant.  Each blind man believes that he knows the truth, not realising that each has only a part of it, causing them to argue long into the night with none giving way.

In this current age truth is being besieged on all fronts – by political correctness, revision of history, declarations of fake news, deniers of the patently obvious, the sacrifice of truth so as not to upset trade partners and the instantaneous spread of packaged opinions via the internet and social media.

So having told you the story, commented on it and probably written about it before, why again?

For two reasons.  The first is that truth has never been more challenged than it is now.  The second is that I recently came across the Blind Men and the Elephant story in the form of a poem.  It is by John Godfrey Saxe, the poet who penned the poem about the struggling barrister who ends it all by jumping in a well, which I posted last week.

When I looked up bio info on the poetic Mr Saxe (1816-1887), I found that he was an American lawyer and later poet known for his re-telling of the Indian parable "The Blind Men and the Elephant", which introduced the story to a Western audience.


A related concept, known as the Elephant Test, is one that is sometimes used by lawyers and has even quoted by judges, as in Cadogan Estates Ltd v Morris; EWCA Civ 1671 (4 November 1998) (at paragraph 17) where Lord Chief Justice Stuart-Smith in the England and Wales Court of Appeal stated:

“This seems to me to be an application of the well known elephant test.  It is difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it.”

So, having concluded my opening address, I call Mr Saxe and his poem:
The Blind Men and the Elephant

by John Godfrey Saxe

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 his 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: "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

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