Analysis of Poem "A Mental Hospital Sitting Room" by Elizabeth Jennings
Elizabeth Jennings and A Mental Hospital Sitting Room
A Mental Hospital Sitting Room is one of the poems Jennings wrote following her mental illness and the experiences she had within the British healthcare system.
- It focuses on the immediate sitting room environment of a hospital where patients wait to be seen, where nothing much seems to happen but where futures are decided. The speaker doubts that any rhyming could be done in such an atmosphere, which is ironic since the very words form part of a rhyming lyric.
Elizabeth Jennings, a devout Catholic, quietly stoic, developed her style in the 1940s and 1950s when she was deemed part of a modern group called The Movement, established to promote a typically British poetry.
In truth she was always a little too modest and off the beaten track to be a member of any radical school. She wrote poems that were understated, measured, formal and sensitive. Some even thought her confessional but not in any explicit or soulful way - she was no Anne Sexton, no Sylvia Plath.
'The best poets writing ....are those who are more personal, who are trying to examine and understand their own emotions.' EJ
Elizabeth Jennings sought clarity within structured, lyrical poems. Her honesty combines with a Larkinesque aloofness; an intelligent use of simple language works because of her technical proficiency.
'For me, poetry is always a search for order.' EJ
A Mental Hospital Sitting Room was first published as opening poem in the book The Mind Has Mountains, 1966. It sits alongside other books of poetry written with mental illness in mind, especially those of Anne Sexton.
Elizabeth Jennings,as mentioned previously, is not a true 'confessionist' however. Her language and content and perspective, though more often than not coming from her emotional side, are more matter of fact - she's too restrained.
This poem represents someone who is confused, caught between two or more worlds, one of which borders on anguish and hopelessness, one of which holds hope for the future. Will creativity survive? Perhaps the art of survival depends on the love and help of others?
A Mental Hospital Sitting Room
Utrillo on the wall. A nun is climbing
Steps in Montmartre. We patients sit below.
It does not seem a time for lucid rhyming;
Too much disturbs. It does not seem a time
When anything could fertilise or grow.
It is as if a scream were opened wide,
A mouth demanding everyone to listen.
Too many people cry, too many hide
And stare into themselves. I am afraid
There are no life-belts here on which to fasten.
The nun is climbing up those steps. The room
Shifts till the dust flies in between our eyes.
The only hope is visitors will come
And talk of other things than our disease…
So much is stagnant yet nothing dies.
Analysis of A Mental Hospital Sitting Room
A Mental Hospital Sitting Room is a poem that starts off with the name of an artist, Utrillo, Maurice Utrillo, a French artist who was actually born in Montmartre (Paris) and who also underwent treatment for mental illness.
This opening line, split into two separate sentences (to reflect a state of mind?) is simple observation on behalf of the speaker. There is a painting on the wall of this sitting room, a kind of reference point for the reader.
- But note the potential for uncertainty. Is it a Utrillo painting on the wall? Or Utrillo himself? Is this some kind of hallucinatory first line? After all, we're in a mental hospital, anything can happen.
The reality is, that this is indeed a painting the speaker is looking at. There is a nun climbing steps the commentary says, and the patients, we patients, are below. Is this symbolism - the nun representing religion, a higher spiritual truth...and the mentally ill people are somehow lower, lacking religion, far away from any truth.
So the reader already knows the basics of the scene: a sitting room with mentally ill patients, a painting on a wall. And the third line confirms the idea that the speaker is quietly commentating, talking to themselves, trying to make sense of it all.
There is a repeat of that slightly disturbing iambic phrase..It does not seem a time....for creativity or progress of any kind. Specifically, there's no time for rhyming? How odd. How tragic. That the speaker should focus on rhymes, clear rhymes, and suggest that poetry can't happen in such a place.
The speaker trusts the reader to understand her predicament. She feels that the seeds of creativity just cannot take hold, cannot grow.
In the second stanza the speaker continues her attempt to articulate and express just what is inside her mind. The language becomes more uncomfortable - note the words scream, demanding, cry, hide, stare, afraid...she is inside this scream, feeling the pain, trapped within herself yet demanding attention from the outside world.
- But there is no help available in this place. Irony of ironies - this is a hospital after all, where sick people go to be healed, saved, rescued. The speaker suggests that she is drowning, all at sea, out of her depth, with no life-belts to hang on to.
The last stanza returns the reader to the picture on the wall. The nun. She is still climbing the steps, hoping to reach a higher level where perhaps she can turn round and see just where it is she came from, gain an overview of her situation. Or perhaps she will never reach the top?
A little art therapy never hurt anyone. But the speaker soon turns her attention to the room, losing her sense of stability as the physical space shifts, fetching up the dust that affects the patient's eyes.
Is this for real? Has she been given drugs that affect her mind? How can the room shift? The vague tensions that have been building from the third line on are changing - there is a sense of dissipation.
The speaker wants visitors from the outside world to come in and relieve her and the other patients. They're preoccupied with their own diseases. She is desperate for distraction, is caught in the doldrums, in a kind of purgatory.
- Overall, an ambivalent, frustrating and fascinating poem which takes the reader into the entrapped mind of a mentally ill patient, someone who senses their creativity might suffer as a result of being part of the healthcare system.
On the one hand, the speaker is not fit for lucid rhyming, on the other the poet has proven rescuer and healer. Both are part of the same self, struggling to escape from the hopelessness that mental illness can bring.
More Analysis of A Mental Hospital Sitting Room
A Mental Hospital Sitting Room is a rhyming poem with three equal stanzas, all quintets, making a total of 15 lines.
The rhyme scheme is abacb with a mix of full and near rhyme:
climbing/rhyming (with time a near rhyme)....below/grow....(stanza 1)
wide/hide (with afraid a near rhyme)...listen/fasten (slant rhyme)....(stanza 2)
room/come (slant rhyme)...eyes/dies (disease a near rhyme)....(stanza 3)
This combination of near and full rhyme reflects the harmony and disharmony within the speaker.
Metre (meter in American English)
Iambics dominate several lines of this poem, but the syntax is such that the natural flow is disrupted, which means that there is sporadic rhythm and only rarely the certainty of a complete regular beat.
Certain lines for example contain an extra beat at the end - as in the first and third lines of the opening stanza - non-stressed syllables where the voice tends to be lowered.
This is a conscious strategy by the poet, mirroring the instability of the mental illness which is an obstacle to the smooth flow of normal life.
Let's take a closer look at the first stanza:
Utrill / o on / the wall. / A nun / is climbing (iambic pentameter + extra beat)
Steps in / Montmartre. / We pati / ents sit / below. (trochee + iambs)
It does / not seem / a time / for lu / cid rhym / ing; (iambic pentameter + extra beat)
Too much / disturbs. / It does / not seem / a time (Spondee + iambs)
When an / ything / could fer / tilise / or grow. (iambic pentameter)
Please note the unusual opening half line contains a French artist's name - Utrillo - the pronunciation of which is a challenge. In this scanning the name is split into three syllables. The second French word Montmartre in the second line, is given two syllables.
This mix of iambic pentameter with extra beat, plus occasional trochee and spondee, continues in the second stanza, and brings added interest for the reader.The final stanza is more settled.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey