Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room' by Elizabeth Jennings


A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room

Utrillo on the wall. A nun is climbing
Steps in Montmartre. We patients sit below.
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 only hope is visitors will come
And talk of other things than our disease …
So much is stagnant and yet nothing dies.

Analysis

The poem ‘A mental hospital sitting room’ is based on the poet’s experiences with having been a psychiatric patient in 1961. It muses on the lived experience of being in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital.

Summary

The poem begins with a description of the paintings that typically hang on the walls of a psychiatric hospital waiting room.

“Utrillo on the wall. A nun is climbing

Steps in Montmartre”

Utrillo was a French painter whose specialisation was cityscapes. Montmartre is a large hill in France.

In the lines that follow, the desolation of the waiting room is very clearly described. The poet says that the waiting room itself is as it a “scream were opened wide” and “a mouth demanding everyone to listen.” The poet is referring to the typical desperation of mental health illnesses, which demands attention and is often vocal about it. There are many people who give vent to their misery and cry, but there are many others who “hide” from the world, are caught up in themselves, and “stare” into their own inner world. The poet says “I am afraid”. The fear could be that arising as part of the poet’s illness and also an effect of the atmosphere of the waiting room where she sees misery all around. She says,

“There are no life-belts here on which to fasten.”

The possibility of complete devastation was so near and there was no protection from it.

In the next line, the poet says that the only hope the psychiatric patients have is of visitors coming and talking of things other than the patients’ mental illness.

The concluding line sums up what it means to be a psychiatric patient.

“So much is stagnant and yet nothing dies.”

The misery of mental illness is stagnant in the sense that it feeds on itself and nothing fresh is added to it. What makes it more miserable is that the devastated mind will not die. It is not a fatal illness, yet rots the person by being still and disintegrating.

Language and imagery

This short poem is replete with words that convey a sense of distress and desolation, such as ‘scream’, ‘cry’, ‘stare’ and ‘disease’. There is a powerful image of water being stagnant yet nothing dying, which is very much the condition of the mentally sick mind.

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