The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

“The Blindman” unfolds in six stanzas consisting of three lines each. Its irregular meter is not without rhyme. The poem consists of rhyming couplets, some of which span the stanza breaks, as the last line of one stanza is completed by the rhyming first line of the next. The title prepares the reader for an experience without sight. As a blind person must rely on other forms to “see,” those with sight are shown how color can be more than an abstract concept for someone who has never witnessed rainbow hues.

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Those who are born with the ability to see take color for granted. Children learn color at a very early age without much difficulty. This simple lesson is recorded, and for the remainder of one’s life the brain recognizes various colors with no need for translation. In May Swenson’s “The Blindman,” the speaker watches as a blind man uses his other senses to “see” colors. The poem begins with the man tasting the color purple by placing “a tulip on his tongue.” In the second stanza, feeling the blades of grass against his cheek, the man construes the color green.

In the third stanza, the blind man’s tears are described as “fallen beads of sight.” This image leads one to believe that the blind man is not quite satisfied with his limited grasp of color. Nonetheless, he continues to grope for answers and lets the reader know that he is aware of these descriptive words.

The poem shifts from the third person to the first as the blind man speaks for himself, continuing to solve the mysteries of color by using objects for comparison. These clues give the man a basis for imagining what color means. He uses the sense of touch to feel the fibers of a scarf for the color red. His association of red with the warmth of the sun matches his interpretation of orange as he feels this color from the heat of a flame. These bright, vivid colors must be strong, like the intensity of fire.

He realizes that there is a multitude of colors; the “seven fragrances of the rainbow” are interpreted through various scents. In the last stanzas the use of all the senses is complete when the blind man tells how he can hear certain colors through the sounds of instruments. Even the sound made by rubbing the smooth surface of a piece of fruit—“a pomegranate lets me hear crimson’s flute”—allows the blind man to conjure up an idea of deep pink. He must use everything around him in his attempt to capture the mysterious phenomenon of light. The second half of the last line, “Only ebony is mute,” ironically sums up his concept of color, for black is the only color he truly understands.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

Poetry is an imaginative expression of consciousness, and in this poem Swenson illustrates an acute awareness of something that is taken for granted by those fortunate enough to see. The poet and the blind man are similar in being able to reach beyond what is directly in front of them. In the words of Dylan Thomas, poetry is “the movement from an overclothed blindness to a naked vision.” In “Blindman,” rather than lifting the cloth to see more clearly, Swenson shields the eyes for a better look. The poem magnifies the colors as they take on a new dimension.

Just as art dates back to the beginning of humankind, imagery and metaphors have been used for centuries to describe vision. Poetry has been a part of human expression since antiquity. The Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos defined poetry as “painting with the gift of speech.” A painting is said to be “worth a thousand words,” and in poetry only a few words are needed to tell an entire story. Swenson once noted that a “poem must be rich and evocative, but at the same time compact and exact.”

Her imagery in “The Blindman” provides a masterful peek into the blind man’s world. Seeing an image is difficult enough without looking at it. Seeing color without sight is impossible, but the blind man compensates for his missing sense of sight by fully using the remaining four. He tastes and feels the ocean: “In water to his lips,/ he named the sea blue and white.” Stimulated further by sound, he notes that his sightless world is embellished by music: “Trumpets tell me yellow.” Again, the crimson flute of the pomegranate may come from the squeaky sound heard from the hard shell of that fruit when he rubs the skin and listens with his ear. The colors that the blind man sees are imaginary, but the poet tries to expand his world with different ways of imagining. It is typical of Swenson to draw upon nature for her imagery, and the nature imagery is especially appealing in this poem.

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Themes