Straying into the Holy Temple of the Lord

Helen Keller

Spiritual Sunday

In honor of Helen Keller, who died 50 years ago last week (June 1, 1968), here’s a poem of hers that I’ve shared in the past. “In the Garden of the Lord” takes on additional power with the knowledge that she was blind. The line from “Amazing Grace”–“I once was blind but now I see”—was more than a metaphor for Keller.

On the other hand, Keller’s use of color imagery is purely metaphorical (the tall lilies “lifting their faces like white saints to God”). In a fine New Yorker article, author Cynthia Ozick notes that that Keller responded brilliantly to those critics who thought she shouldn’t use color in her poetry because she didn’t know color:

Those who ridiculed her rendering of color she dismissed as “spirit-vandals” who would force her “to bite the dust of material things.” Her idea of the subjective onlooker was broader than that of physics, and while “red” may denote an explicit and measurable wavelength in the visible spectrum, in the mind it varies from the bluster of rage to the reticence of a blush: physics cannot cage metaphor.

Whatever her relation to color, there’s no question about her acquaintance with gratitude and joy.  Ozick says that irony was unbeknownst to Keller, who had experienced true darkness and so did not need ironic distancing to protect her. The way she mixes earnestness with emotional overflowing prompts Ozick to observe, “It is as if Tennyson and the transcendentalists had together got hold of her typewriter.”

The final result is Keller giving herself over fully to her emotions. One encounters in this poem a truly open heart.

In the Garden of the Lord

By Helen Keller

The word of God came unto me,
Sitting alone among the multitudes;
And my blind eyes were touched with light.
And there was laid upon my lips a flame of fire.

I laugh and shout for life is good,
Though my feet are set in silent ways.
In merry mood I leave the crowd
To walk in my garden. Ever as I walk
I gather fruits and flowers in my hands.
And with joyful heart I bless the sun
That kindles all the place with radiant life.
I run with playful winds that blow the scent
Of rose and jessamine in eddying whirls.

At last I come where tall lilies grow,
Lifting their faces like white saints to God.
While the lilies pray, I kneel upon the ground;
I have strayed into the holy temple of the Lord.

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