Adam Thorpe’s poem is a cross-reference to John Milton’s sonnet, ‘On His Blindness’ with the slight alteration of the pronoun from ‘his’ to ‘her, where in Milton’s poem, he talks about his own experience of being blind while dwelling on a metaphysical aspect in which he directs his poem to God who had both given him a poetic talent which requires the power of sight but thwarts the use of that talent by taking away his sight. Thorpe, instead of using the first person in which Milton talks about his own blindness, connects more deeply with the reader base by talking about his mother. ‘On Her Blindness’ can be categorised under the theme of relationships, specifically looking on at a mother-child relationship, while it can also be understood as a poem that moves around places, thus placing a transitional aspect. The mother’s personality is also highlighted through different techniques used by Thorpe, specifically the use of direct speech which characterises her, and thus the poem can also be a reference to identity.
The most notable thing in Thorpe’s poem is the structure that he devises, where there are constant two line stanzas used to make up about twenty-three stanzas, only altering with the final stanza which includes one line only. . The poem is in free verse with enjambments and the two lines arrangement presents the visual effect of organized couplets just like his mother’s desperate effort to hold on to dignity in the face of the catastrophic defeat. Thorpe also restrains from using intricate rhyming schemes or rhetoric to stylise his poem, signifying the loss of beauty and lyricism in the mother’s life, thus identifying how completely harsh her life had become. Her hardship is reinforced by her attempting to be not reminded of it, which represents how truly extensive her disability was affecting her, where Thorpe starts off with this very warning, ‘One shouldn’t remind her.’ The alliteration of the ‘b’ consonant in the phrase ‘bear being blind’ can also serve as a homophone where the word ‘bear’ would refer to ‘bare’, which would connote with vulnerability, thus signifying how this loss of sight has been attached with a sense of insecurity. This provides a layer that builds up empathy and sympathy within readers, and invokes a strong connection with the reader and the poem.
Yet, the mother is resilient and doesn’t give up, despite living in this oxymoronic state of ‘living hell’. The poet essentially follows a tone of conversation in his poem, and uses words that seem informal to attribute the poem as something personal, ‘I’d bump myself off’, ‘bumping into walls like dodgem’. These also present elements of dark humour as these talk about what is, on the preface, a very difficult lifestyle as the mother confesses to wanting to kill herself if she hadn’t held on to ‘hope for a cure’ while being unable to find food on her plate and then being unable to walk properly, which her husband jokes about. But Thorpe presents it at a humorous level to lighten the semantic field of hardship, inability and vulnerability to paint the state of a mother-son relationship and how we use humour to escape the harshness of life, as the mother who is blind would reply to the jokes about her blindness by either ‘pretened(ing) to ignore the void, or laugh(ing) it off’. Then the poet moves on to episodes where his mother would seem to the observer that she was actually seeing, where she would ‘smile’ when the poet’s children would show her their drawing or a new toy and even ‘drive the old Lanchester’ when it seemed safe to do so. She would ‘visit exhibitions, admire films, sink into television’ – portraying how she would pretend to have her vision, and she would make others feel like she was watching too. This denial increases the sense of empathy within readers because we can understand how in old age when we lose everything we held dear, we would try to pretend, at least, to hold on it.
The poem then moves on the inevitable stage – the death period. Thorpe riddles his poem with uses of visual senses, which differentiates the poet’s persona and the mother, where the poet has the ability to visualise while the mother does not, and thus he can see the ‘old Lanchester’ and the ‘golden weather’ ‘ablaze with colour’ and the ‘ground royal with leaf-fall’, things slowly slipping out of her life. Yet, the poem takes a surprising turn when, on the verge of death, the mother to whom Thorpe has recited all the visual elements around her, replies with ‘Oh yes, I know,’ presenting how the mother, even if she did not have her eyesight, did have an inner eye – the sixth sense. And through her death, she has attained this sense which presents how death is just the spirit moving onto another life filled with all senses. The last stanza with the single line gives comfort to the belief that the dead will always be watching over us. This poem is about the tragedy of human experience, when the mind refuses to accept defeat as the faculties fail in time. Those things the poet mentions present the image of a woman full of vital energy, driving the old Lanchester, enjoying nature’s beauty. The poet ends hoping his mother possibly did manage to see those beautiful things spiritually in her retreating phase. Similar to Milton’s hope that God accepts the service of the handicapped, who simply stand in humility..
The poet plays with different undertones in his poem, switching from despair and hopelessness to slight humour and then to peacefulness. This complements the attitude of transition present in the poem, where it moves from a restaurant in Paris to a homely environment to a driveway in ‘Berkshire lanes’ and then to different places from exhibitions to television and then to a hospital to finally progress on to a deathbed. These transitions articulate the entire movement from life to death, while the mother’s own journey with her blindness gives highlight to how we move from having limited senses in the life that we live right now – the corporal life – to have all the senses open up to us when we die, that is the spiritual life. This reinforces the last line of Milton’s sonnet where he believes that those who wait will find themselves at eternal peace, ‘They also serve who only stand and waite.’