The Country of the Blind

The Country of the Blind

by C.S. Lewis

Hard light bathed them-a whole nation of eyeless men,
Dark bipeds not aware how they were maimed. A long
Process, clearly, a slow curse,
Drained through centuries, left them thus.

At some transitional stage, then, a luckless few,
No doubt, must have had eyes after the up-to-date,
Normal type had achieved snug
Darkness, safe from the guns of heavn;

Whose blind mouths would abuse words that belonged to their
Great-grandsires, unabashed, talking of light in some
Eunuch’d, etiolated,
Fungoid sense, as a symbol of

Abstract thoughts. If a man, one that had eyes, a poor
Misfit, spoke of the grey dawn or the stars or green-
Sloped sea waves, or admired how
Warm tints change in a lady’s cheek,

None complained he had used words from an alien tongue,
None question’d. It was worse. All would agree ‘Of course,’
Came their answer. “We’ve all felt
Just like that.” They were wrong. And he

Knew too much to be clear, could not explain. The words —
Sold, raped flung to the dogs — now could avail no more;
Hence silence. But the mouldwarps,
With glib confidence, easily

Showed how tricks of the phrase, sheer metaphors could set
Fools concocting a myth, taking the worlds for things.
Do you think this a far-fetched
Picture? Go then about among

Men now famous; attempt speech on the truths that once,
Opaque, carved in divine forms, irremovable,
Dear but dear as a mountain-
Mass, stood plain to the inward eye.

________________________________

The Country of the Blind is a thirty-two line, eight stanza, poem by C.S. Lewis.

The subject of the poem is spiritual blindness.

In the first stanza we are painted a picture of the setting.

Hard light bathed them-a whole nation of eyeless men,
Dark bipeds not aware how they were maimed. A long
Process, clearly, a slow curse,
Drained through centuries, left them thus.

The depiction of an entire nation of the blind clues us in to the notion that the blindness of which Lewis writes is not literal. If not literal, then light and dark are metaphors for something else: knowledge & ignorance; reason & irrationality; truth & falsity. Whatever the represented dichotomy proves to be, Lewis tells us that the nation arrived in its situation in slow increments (“a slow curse” & “Draned through centuries.”)

With this in mind, look back at the opening two words of the poem. “Hard light.” It is clear to Lewis that blindness represents an avoidance of something otherwise obvious and ubiquitous.

In the second stanza, Lewis gives us a clue that the blindness to which he is referring is specifically spiritual.

At some transitional stage, then, a luckless few,
No doubt, must have had eyes after the up-to-date,
Normal type had achieved snug
Darkness, safe from the guns of heavn;

Lewis cynically describes those who have avoided blindness as “a luckless few.” Why are they luckless? They appear to be surrounded by the smug and in danger from “the guns of heavn.” What does it mean to be safe from the guns of heavn? Whereas God or God’s law might draw spiritual conviction from one who can “see,” the spiritually blind are safe from that potential outcome.

In the third stanza, we continue on with a description of how the blind speak. It is not flattering.

Whose blind mouths would abuse words that belonged to their
Great-grandsires, unabashed, talking of light in some
Eunuch’d, etiolated,
Fungoid sense, as a symbol of

Lewis draws attention to their mouths and words in line nine. What does he accuse the blind of doing? He accuses them of talking about “light” without ever having seen it. He says they “abuse words” from generations which did see the light. However, without having seen it themselves, when the blind speak of it, their words fail. Lewis harshly describes this false-witness description as “Eunuch’d,” “etiolated,” and “Fungoid.”

The railing continues on in the fourth stanza.

Abstract thoughts. If a man, one that had eyes, a poor
Misfit, spoke of the grey dawn or the stars or green-
Sloped sea waves, or admired how
Warm tints change in a lady’s cheek,

We get a better picture of the criticism here. Lewis describes the speech of his “blind” people as “Abstract thoughts.” In this usage, abstract is a pejorative. Lewis is a realist, who believes in concrete truth, and the blind are relativists, discussing abstract notions of truth. The rest of this stanza is Lewis describing things that exist in concrete terms.

The fifth stanza returns our focus away from one who sees to those who do not.

None complained he had used words from an alien tongue,
None question’d. It was worse. All would agree ‘Of course,’
Came their answer. “We’ve all felt
Just like that.” They were wrong. And he

The trouble with the blind, the moral relativists, by Lewis’s estimation, is that they are self-deluded. Borrowing from stanza three again, Lewis would argue that a relativist who claims to know truth is like a Eunuch who claims to know the pleasures of sexual intercourse. If you have not seen a gray dawn, how can you know what it is to see it? Truth and knowledge are rooted, then, in experience.

The sixth stanza continues with Lewis’s contempt.

Knew too much to be clear, could not explain. The words —
Sold, raped flung to the dogs — now could avail no more;
Hence silence. But the mouldwarps,
With glib confidence, easily

The trouble with basing knowledge of a thing, on experience of a thing, is that words only go so far in the conveying. Lewis – in colorful language – describes efforts to explain with words what must be experienced as a waste of time. Eventually the unlucky blind stop trying to explain – “Hence silence.”

In describing the blind as “mouldwarps,” in addition to adding a terrific insult into the English speaking lexicon, Lewis tells us that these people are not the shape of what was intended for them. This misshapenness is all the more tragic in that they have “glib confidence” anyway. Glib confidence is more difficult to course correct because it is slippery or smooth.

The seventh stanza completes our look at the blind of some past “transitional stage” which he referred to in the second stanza.

Showed how tricks of the phrase, sheer metaphors could set
Fools concocting a myth, taking the worlds for things.
Do you think this a far-fetched
Picture? Go then about among

Rather than see what is real, the blind – through “tricks of the phrase” – concoct myths of their own making around the words of those who could see. Lewis then brings this look at the past back into the present. He talks to the Reader and asks if this seems far-fetched. Then he challenges the Reader.

In the eight stanza, we learn the details of Lewis’s challenge.

Men now famous; attempt speech on the truths that once,
Opaque, carved in divine forms, irremovable,
Dear but dear as a mountain-
Mass, stood plain to the inward eye.

Lewis tells the reader to talk to famous men about basic truths (i.e. the “opaque,” “carved,” and “irremovable” truths bathed in “Hard light.”)

The Speaker refers to the “inward eye” to close the poem – assuring us that he has been speaking throughout about literal blindness. He is not referring to literal mountains. He refers to truths that were once as self-evident at literal mountains.

Lewis writes with the passion of someone who once was blind but now sees. Perhaps some of the anger that seeps through in this work is a belief that the blindness was avoidable. His well-known personal story is that he was a long-time atheist that became a believer in God through reason-based study and his friendship with, among others, J.R.R. Tolkein.

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