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Hospital For Defectives

Thomas Blackburn

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Pass the umbrage?
2002-06-29
Added by: Andrew Mayers
This is a fairly straightforward poem in which the speaker tries to find God’s purpose in creating mentally retarded human beings. Blackburn’s thoughts are set in motion by a visit to a hospital for the so-called ‘defectives’. Such intricate things as the eyelid and such beautiful things as the rose are signs of God’s powers and can be easily appreciated but “these men in a turnip field” cannot be explained. They have none of the qualities that make man more than animal.
The patients cannot even respond to the blows of the warder by crying out or even simply turning away their faces and so the poet can only wonder what God is trying to say through these human beings.
It will be interesting to see if the poem causes any kind of offence. The use of a word like ‘defectives’ can only be viewed with suspicion by the unthinking advocates of political correctness. I like the poem because it records an authentic human experience: It simply and effectively expresses a question which, at some time or other, must have occurred to us all, namely that if God is responsible for the world, then what possible reason can there be for so many of the seemingly unnecessary injustices and cruelties in the evidence throughout that world? This is regardless of whether or not we have any religious faith.
Blackburn’s use of comparisons in the poem is particularly effective. By referring to God as “Lord of the Images” and seeing His creations as God’s way of expressing His love for mankind, we are encouraged to question God’s purposes in creating mental defectives.

Blackburn’s choice of the eyelid and the rose is also particularly effective in describing God’s skill because, on the one hand, he is making us think about the little appreciated and intricate beauties of the eyelid (and they are amazing when you think about it) and, on the other hand, the splendour and richness of a simple rose. Similarly, the fact that he sees these “unleavened” men in a turnip field is effective because turnips are traditionally associated with the kind of person who comes nearest to being a ‘vegetable’. Unleavened bread has something missing, so it does not develop to its full potential.

Blackburn feels angry that these people have to suffer and we are offered no reason why. The comparison of a wheelchair to a “cart” is both moving and effective because it shows these men as being utterly without dignity. In fact, it is surprising that Blackburn, without being at all sentimental about these men, still manages to make us appreciate the pathos and vulnerability of their situation.

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