“Nay, nay! I better understand!”

The Blind Men and the Elephant
by Sana’i (1080-1131)
Translated by E.G. Browne (1862 – 1926)
Taken from Persian Poems, An Anthology of Verse Translations, © 1954

Not far from Ghúr once stood a city tall
Whose denizens were sightless one and all.
A certain Sultán once,when passing nigh,
Had pitched his camp upon the plain hard by,
Wherein, to prove his splendour, rank, and state,
Was kept an elephant most huge and great.
Then in the townsmen’s minds arose desire
To know the nature of this creature dire.
Blind delegates by blind electorate
Were therefore chosen to investigate
The beast, and each, by feeling trunk or limb,
Strove to acquire an image clear of him.
Thus each conceived a visionary whole,
And to the phantom clung with heart and soul.

When to the city they were come again,
The eager townsmen flocked to them amain.
Each one of them — wrong and misguided all —
Was eager his impressions to recall.
Asked to describe the creature’s size and shape,
They spoke, while round about them, all agape,
Stamping impatiently, their comrades swarm
To hear about the monster’s shape and form.
Now, for his knowledge each inquiring wight
Must trust to touch, being devoid of sight,
So he who’d only felt the creature’s ear,
On being asked: “How doth its heart appear?”
“Mighty and terrible,” at once replied,
“Like to a carpet, hard and flat and wide!”
Then he who on its trunk had laid his hand
Broke in: “Nay, nay! I better understand!
‘Tis like a water-pipe, I tell you true,
Hollow, yet deadly and destructive too.”
While he who’d had but leisure to explore
The sturdy limbs which the great beast upbore,
Exclaimed: “No, no! To all men be it known
‘Tis like a column tapered to a cone!”
Each had but known one part, and no man all;
Hence into deadly error each did fall.
No way to know the All man’s heart can find:
Can knowledge e’er accompany the blind?

 

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