What is the meaning of the blue finger in "The Vagabond"?

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In Robert Louis Stevenson's “The Vagabond,” the speaker's blue finger, stung and bitten by the chill wind, symbolizes the hardships he faces as a vagabond who continues his wandering ways, even in the cold weather.

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The speaker in Robert Louis Stevenson's poem “The Vagabond” is a traveler who lives his life on the road. He has no set home, but he loves his life. All he wants is the heavens above him and the road beneath his feet, and he is satisfied.

When autumn comes and the air turns cold, he will still follow his vagabond ways. He admits, however, that the cold wind bites his “blue finger.” His fingers turn blue in the chilly air as he wanders about in the open fields. This is a hardship for sure. Indeed, the vagabond's blue finger can symbolize the difficulties and trials of his chosen way of life. He appreciates the warmth of the “fireside haven” on cold days, but he will never give up his vagabond life for the sake of autumn or winter. He will keep on traveling, not asking for wealth or hope or love or friendship. He will not demand an easy path or comfort. He will accept the trials that befall him with a steadfast courage and a commitment to tramping through the countryside in warmth or cold.

“Let the blow fall soon or late,” the speaker invites. Whatever happens to him, he will endure, for he has the “heaven above,” the “earth around,” and the “road before” him. Not even blue fingers or any other adversity will stop his journeying as a vagabond.

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What does the speaker mean by the words "blue fingers" in "The Vagabond"?

In this poem, the phrase “blue finger” is an example of synecdoche; the part (finger) is being used to represent the whole (the whole person). The speaker tells us that autumn is “silencing” a bird and “biting” the finger as a way of telling us that the cold is very strong. Using “autumn” to mean “cold” is another example of synecdoche: this time the whole (autumn) is being used to refer to one of its aspects (coldness). Synecdoche is a figurative technique in which a part is used to refer to the whole or the whole is used to refer to a part. I have included a link to the dictionary definition of synecdoche.

In terms of the idea that the speaker is trying to convey, the strength of this line is in its hyperbole: the cold is not literally “biting” the fingers, but this word makes the reader think of the coldness as almost like an aggressive animal. By using “biting the blue finger” the speaker can make the reader understand the severity of the cold without looking foolish for wanting to stay outside.

So by using the blue fingers, as a metaphor the speaker also romanticizes the cold. Imagine the effect if the poem instead referred to a “gangrenous frostbitten toe”; the reader would be far less sympathetic to the speaker’s desire for freedom. Using this imagery allows the speaker to convincingly continue on their quest to stay outside even when it’s dangerous for their health.

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What does the speaker mean by the words "blue fingers" in "The Vagabond"?

The speaker of the poem is a tramp who likes to spend his whole life wandering from place to place, out in the open air come rain, hail, or shine. He wants us to know that the change of seasons doesn't bother him at all. Spring, summer, fall, winter—whatever the season, whatever the weather, you'll always find him out and about wandering.

Come the winter time, the wanderer will still be roaming far afield. Although the winter may have silenced the birds in the trees, forcing them to migrate to warmer climes, the wanderer has no intention of going anywhere. He'll stay right where he is, even if the bitter cold of winter should bite into his blue, frosty fingers. If you've ever been outside on a cold winter's day without gloves, you'll know that your fingers can very quickly turn blue in the icy chill, and that's most probably what the speaker's referring to here.

The wanderer wants us to know that the prospect of spending all winter outside in the freezing weather doesn't concern him in the slightest, blue fingers or not.

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