“The Illiterate” is a sonnet by William Meredith first published in The Open Sea and Other Poems in 1958. Meredith was a homosexual writing in the Eisenhower era of coerced and enforced conformity. Thus the illiteracy of the poem’s situated subject is generally taken interpreted metaphorically as an address perhaps to an unidentified male lover. The interpretation of metaphor is appropriate because the defining feature of the poem is its quite unusual structure as an extended simile that is carried throughout the poem starting with the second line.
Indeed, only the first six words of this sonnet are intended to be read as literal rather than figurative: “Touching your goodness, I am like a man.” Everything that comes after that for the next thirteen lines plays out the comparison made to the man that the speaker is like rather than any literal description of what touching the other person’s goodness may be like. Toss in the fact that another person’s “goodness” is metaphorical itself and “The Illiterate” becomes almost entire figurative except for its first two words!