‘On Her Blindness’ by Adam Thorpe is a poem which is very personal in tone and addresses the challenges of being blind how health and wellbeing typically worsen as an individual ages and grows old. Thorpe was born in 1956 in Paris, but grew up in a range of countries including India and England. He now lives in France and is an influential poet and novelist, often contributing reviews to various newspapers.
This poem is part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. Click here to see all the prescribed poems from the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection.
Interpreture gives ‘On Her Blindness’ a difficulty rating of 2, meaning that it is deemed to be relatively straightforward. The meaning is clear and this enables easy identification of key themes, aided by the typically straightforward use of language. The structure is slightly more difficult, however it still remains accessible meaning that this may be a good option when comparing to another more challenging poem.
‘On Her Blindness’
The title of the poem is a reference to ‘On His Blindness’ by 17th century poet John Milton, in which Milton considers his own life, health and difficulties. As such, readers who are aware of this poem may recognise the link between the two and therefore have some initial ideas, and would also see the change to “her” as notable. This indicates that there is a personal or fundamental reason for this transition which is likely to be reflected in the poem. In addition, by being in the third person it suggests a sense of observation to events, which could cause some readers to find it more emotive. As such, the poem title is likely to be effective even if readers do not identify the allusion.
One of the more obvious structural techniques in ‘On Her Blindness’ is the arrangement of stanzas. Two lines per stanza (with the exception of the final stanza) is relatively unusual because it visually breaks the poem up so much and can be seen as making it more challenging to read at a normal pace. This could be interpreted as making it feel more like a natural conversation or speech with frequent switching, helping to create the more informal and personal tone. This would then make the transition in subject matter at the end of the poem even more emotional for a reader. In addition, the final line in its own stanza shows a break to this ‘combined’ and ‘conversation’ style of writing, making the death even more poignant.
Another key structural technique is the lack of full stops and end-stopped lines in the poem, with only a handful throughout. This further continues the sense of conversation, intensifying the feeling that this is a personal poem, but it also could be interpreted as alluding to a constant flow of memories that are being brought up; either in conversation, or during the narrator remembering their mother after her death. Death occurs in everyone’s life to varying extents, so by addressing such a universal theme it is inevitable for Thorpe to get a strong reader response. This is particularly the case by focussing on mourning through the use of memories, with a reader encouraged to consider their own memories in response to the narrator’s own specific references and memories.
The length of each line in the poem remains surprisingly consistent, but does have a couple of exceptions. Each line is already quite short, with only around six or seven words per line, and even the shorter lines still have five words. As such, the only noticeable differences in length are achieved with the choice of shorter words to make the lines visually shorter, such as “to drive the old Lanchester // long after it was safe”. This could be interpreted as marking a turning point in the poem as it begins to reach its conclusion and the shares that the narrator’s mother has passed away.
The decision to include speech within the poem helps to further emphasise the personal tone and nature of ‘On Her Blindness’ to a reader, along with the idea of conversation which is shown through the structure. Using speech also encourages a reader to adopt different tones for the poem, making it more memorable and also more personal as the narrator and their mother begin to become more developed characters and ideas than would otherwise be the case.
Elements of ‘dark humour’ are also present within the poem, with phrases such as “bumping into walls like a dodgem” and “I’d bump myself off”. This is likely to be highly effective for a reader because it infers a sense of inevitability for a further worsening in the mother’s condition by having to find happiness and positivity within the current situation. This interpretation would be particularly prevalent for readers who focus on the line where the narrator’s mother talks about “hope of a cure” as these humorous descriptions could be seen as a coping method, for both the mother and the narrator.
Imagery and descriptions throughout the poem help to highlight the presence of the imagination while also showing the difficulties faced by an individual without the sense of sight. For example, there is a strong description of “autumn trees” which were “ablaze with colour” and adjectives such as “old” to describe the “Lanchester” and the simile to describe her vision as being “as blank as stone”. These examples, and others, combine to encourage a reader to use their imagination, which in turn gets them to have additional empathy with the mother who is also restricted to the imagination by no longer being able to see.
“could not bear being blind”
Opening the poem with this first phrase and the noticeable alliteration helps to show a reader the strong emotional impact of being blind, both for the those who witness the difficulties of the sufferer, and the sufferer themselves. The use of “bear” is interesting because some may notice the link to “bare” (as a homophone) and the connotations of vulnerability.
The sibilance of this description would help to emphasise the extremely negative situation that the narrator’s mother is in, with additional audible emphasis placed on the drawn out “slow” by a reader. This further feeds into the idea of a long but difficult decline, increasing a reader’s empathy with the mother, particularly for readers with similar personal experiences.
“she was watching, somewhere, in the end”
This line being separate to the rest of the text and at the end of the poem gives it strong visual emphasis, helping a reader to see it as an important line. The hopeful tone helps to end the poem on a more positive note, which encourages the interpretation as a form of eulogy as it helps to strengthen the idea of happy times and memories. The reference to “watching” is particularly emotional because it is something the mother had previously lost the ability to do.
‘On Her Blindness’ Key Themes
- Family: ‘On Her Blindness’ is a very personal poem through the way it shares ideas about family, experiences and death. Ideas that are raised are common to many families which helps to create additional empathy with the narrator and the overall theme of the poem.
- Identity: The decline in the mother’s ability to see and do everyday tasks can be interpreted as showing a decline in the ability to have self-identity, as she is no longer able to do things for herself and make her own decisions and choices.
Quick Focus Questions
- In what ways does the conversational structure help a reader to relate their personal experiences to the poem?
- Would a different stanza structure make ‘On Her Blindness’ more or less effective for a reader? Explain your reasoning and use specific examples.
- How does Thorpe encourage readers to use their imagination, and how does this link to ideas within the poem?
‘On Her Blindness’ is a very effective poem because of the way that the majority of readers can relate in some form to the events and descriptions it contains, particularly those regarding the death or illness of loved family members. The structure is also an interesting choice and would provide a good starting point for comparison with other poems, such as the condensed structure of ‘An Easy Passage’ or ‘Effects’. Other comparisons could be made based on the family theme with ‘Out of the Bag’ and ‘Genetics’.