‘On Her Blindness’ is titled after John Milton’s famous sonnet ‘On His Blindness’ in which the poet speaks about his own failing sight. In this poem, Thorpe explores themes of loss, struggle, unhappiness, and family relationships. The mood is at times downtrodden and at others peaceful.
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Summary of On Her Blindness
The poem takes the reader through several emotional passages that depict the poet’s mother’s frustration at her disability. He depicts scenes where she pretended to see and pretended to feel lighthearted and optimistic about her life. Humorous moments are mixed with poignantly sad ones as the poem reaches its conclusion and the mother passes away.
Structure of On Her Blindness
‘On Her Blindness’ by Adam Thorpe is a twenty-four line poem that is divided up into sets of two, known as couplets. The only exception is the final line of the poem which stands alone. These couplets are unrhymed and flow one into the next telling the narrative of the poet’s mom’s blindness.
Poetic Techniques in On Her Blindness
Thorpe makes use of several poetic techniques in this piece. They include alliteration, simile, and caesura. The first, enjambment, is quite important in this piece. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines one and two of the fifth stanza and one and two of the ninth.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “Don’t” and “done” in stanza ten and “dignity” and “dodgem” in stanza nine.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. The second line of stanza seven is a good example. It reads: “myself off.” I don’t recall what I replied”.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is an example early on in the poem, in stanza two. Here, the poet uses the words “like a Roman” to refer to those who pretend not to care, or ignore, the pain of their disability. His experience, with his mother, is quite different.
Analysis of On Her Blindness
Stanzas One, Two, and Three
In the first stanzas of ‘On Her Blindness,’ the speaker uses very simple language and diction to describe his mother’s blindness. His words are clear, blunt, and to the point. He tells the reader point-blank that his mother hated being blind. This statement which is so striking right at the beginning of the poem is acknowledged by the poet in the second line. He knows that acknowledging this fact is unusual and taboo somehow.
Stanzas Four, Five and Six
Generally, the public prefers people to hide the “hell” that comes with “catastrophic / handicaps”. This is what “one tends to hear” anyway. The use of “one” rather than “I” distances these words from the speaker as if he doesn’t want to take credit for them.
The poet thinks back to a time that his mother spoke very frankly to him, as frankly as he’s addressing the listener now. She told him that “It’s living hell,” to be blind. This is connected with her struggle to eat in a Paris restaurant. The scene is ironic as within that setting a dinner should be indulgent and happy, but his mother is struggling to get the food to stay on her fork.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
The poet continues into the next stanzas of ‘On Her Blindness’ to relay his mother’s words and while also the struggle he went through trying to find something to say to this moving honesty. She told him that she’d kill herls, “bump / [her]self off” if she didn’t think that a cure might come around someday. This phrase “bump myself off” is a euphemism and a very colloquial one at that.
The speaker can’t bring his response to mind. He knows this is because whatever he said was “the usual sop”.
Stanzas Nine, Ten, and Eleven
Despite her misery and fear, his mother “kept her dignity”. It’s clear that this is something he admires. Even when she was struggling, bumping into walls and looking for food on her plate. Most of the time when these things happened she tried to joke about them and take them in stride. Her husband, the speaker’s father also did his best to soothe her anxiety by making jokes. But, it was all pretending. Underneath she was deeply unhappy with her situation.
Stanzas Twelve, Thirteen, and Fourteen
There are other moments in ‘On Her Blindness’ where “the kids,” presumably her grandchildren would show her something and she’d pretend she could see it. These moments when she was pretending were moments when the speaker and the other adults could forget about her suffering. They’d set aside the fact of her “slow slide” into, or the years of life that ended in, blindness.
Stanzas Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen
The poet looks into the past to other moments where they purposely or subconsciously forgot about the mother’s growing blindness. One of these instances was connected to driving the Lanchester. Her vision was far too poor to be doing these things but she did them and went out of her way to see and visit places that she’d never see again.
Stanzas Eighteen through Twenty-Four
The imagery in these last lines of ‘On Her Blindness’ is beautiful. Despite the loss that’s coming, the setting is peaceful and calm. Her last living week was a beautiful one. They were at the hospital but all around it were the colours of fall. There is a great example of caesura in the nineteenth stanza where the poet forgets once more that his mother can’t see.
As she had in the past she tried to pretend that she could see, adding that “it’s lovely out there”. Now though, the time for pretending is gone and “Her eyelids were closed / in the coffin”. It was up to the family members, the poet ends emotionally, to “believe / she was watching, somewhere, in the end”.