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Touch the Whole Elephant

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 7.57.44 AMSix years ago, while five-year-old Elsie and I ate breakfast, I flipped the pages of my new poetry book, Great Poems for Grandchildren. I read a few nursery rhymes aloud and then happened upon The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe. Little did I know this poem would become one of all my Grands’ favorites and little do they know that it was written in the 1800s.

Last week, Elsie’s sister Lucy, age 7, asked, “Gran, will you read poems?” It’s become a tradition: breakfast and poetry. Lucy looked thru a stack of books close to the kitchen table. “Where’s the book with the blind men and elephant?”

“It was six men of Hindostan to learning much inclined,

Who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind);

That each by observation might satisfy his mind.

“Gran, stop,” Lucy said. “What does that satis word mean?”

“Satisfy?” I asked. Lucy nodded. “Well, when you eat pancakes you satisfy your stomach and aren’t hungry. They wanted to learn about an elephant and satisfy their minds. They were learning.”

Lucy nodded and said, “Keep going.”  She leaned toward me and waited for the last word on the next stanza.

“The first approached the elephant and happening to fall

Against his broad and study side, at once began to bawl,

‘Bless me, it seems the elephant is very like a ….”

“WALL!” Lucy shouted and laughed. She knew the last word of the next five stanzas.

The second blind man felt the elephant’s tusk and declared the wonder of an elephant is very like a SPEAR.

The third happened to take the squirming trunk and said the elephant very like a SNAKE.

The fourth’s hand felt the knee and said the mighty beast is very like a TREE.

The fifth chanced to touch the ear and marveled that an elephant is very like a FAN.

The sixth groped the swinging tail that fell within his scope and said the elephant is very like a ROPE.

“And so these men of Hindostan disputed loud and long

Each of his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!”

Lucy shook her head. “Why didn’t they touch the whole elephant?” Lucy has heard this poem many times, but until now she hasn’t ask questions. “I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, if they had or just talked to each other, they’d know what an elephant looks like,” my young Grand said, the same conclusion that her sister and two other older Grands have made.

Saxe’s last stanza isn’t included in my poetry book for children.

“So, oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween, tread on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean, and prate about the elephant, not one of them has seen!”

My Grands and I have laughed about this poem. Those silly blind men. An elephant with a snake trunk. A rope tail. And each has asked the question: “Why didn’t they touch the whole elephant?” Yes, why?

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