Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hospital Poems, Part One: John Betjeman

Given the large number of poetry anthologies out there, I would not be surprised if someone has compiled a collection of poems about hospitals.  If so, I have not seen it.  (Nor have I looked for it.)  Thus, I apologize if some enterprising anthologist has trod this ground before me.  That being said, I have not made a conscious effort to search out hospital poems.  Rather, I have simply come across them in my aimless reading.

Is there a common theme to what I have stumbled upon?  Well, as you might expect, death haunts these hospital corridors.  But, as Hartley Coleridge (1796-1849) wrote:  "Think upon Death, 'tis good to think of Death."  Now that I have no doubt chased everyone away, here is a poem by John Betjeman:

          The Cottage Hospital

At the end of a long-walled garden
   in a red provincial town,
A  brick path led to a mulberry --
   scanty grass at its feet.
I lay under blackening branches
   where the mulberry leaves hung down
Sheltering ruby fruit globes
   from a Sunday-tea-time heat.
Apple and plum espaliers
   basked upon bricks of brown;
The air was swimming with insects,
   and children played in the street.

Out of this bright intentness
   into the mulberry shade
Musca domestica (housefly)
   swung from the August light
Slap into slithery rigging
   by the waiting spider made
Which spun the lithe elastic
   till the fly was shrouded tight.
Down came the hairy talons
   and horrible poison blade
And none of the garden noticed
   that fizzing, hopeless fight.

Say in what Cottage Hospital
   whose pale green walls resound
With the tap upon polished parquet
   of inflexible nurses' feet
Shall I myself be lying
   when they range the screens around?
And say shall I groan in dying,
   as I twist the sweaty sheet?
Or gasp for breath uncrying,
   as I feel my senses drowned
While the air is swimming with insects
   and children play in the street?

                                Ventnor Cottage Hospital, Isle of Wight


panjandrum said...

Absolutely fabulous.

Stephen Pentz said...

Panjandrum: Thank you very much for visiting, and for commenting. I'm pleased that you liked Betjeman's poem. Thank you again.

Dr Jane Darcy said...

I've just stumbled across your lovely blog. Presumably Cottage Hospital is not about the Royal National Hospital at Ventnor - ? But do you know if Betjeman wrote one on it? And could you say more about the beautiful picture you use?

Stephen Pentz said...

Dr Darcy: thank you for the kind words. I'm pleased that you found your way here.

As to the image of the cottage hospital: it is one that I discovered on the Internet, when I (as an American not familiar with the term) was doing some research as to what a cottage hospital looked like (in general). As to which cottage hospital Betjeman was writing of, I don't know the answer to that -- although I suspect that some industrious Betjeman scholar has tracked that down.

Thank you again. I hope that you will return soon.