Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'Night Garden of the Asylum' by Elizabeth Jennings


Night Garden of the Asylum

An Owl’s call scrapes the stillness.
Curtains are barriers and behind them
The beds settle into neat rows.
Soon they’ll be ruffled.
The garden knows nothing of illness.
Only it knows of the slow gleam
Of stars, the moon’s distilling; it knows
Why the beds and lawns are levelled.
Then all is broken from its fullness.
A human cry cuts across a dream.
A wild hand squeezes an open rose.
We are in witchcraft, bedevilled.

Analysis

The poem is a short reflection on the nature of psychological illness, and the disturbances to the mind that is made in the course of being ill. The poem is a direct outcome of the poet’s own experience in a mental asylum.

Summary

The first line itself is metaphorical. Just like an owl’s cry “scrapes” the night sky, the soundless cry of a mentally ill person cuts across the stillness of the mind. In the mental hospital, every curtain is a kind of boundary line for a kingdom of mental agony and is a “barrier” for a person to get to know another person. Just like a garden is arranged into neat rows, beds are arranged in neat rows. However, such tidiness is only in outward appearance. They are easily “ruffled”.

The garden at the asylum is blissfully unaware of the agony of the inmates: it knows only the “slow gleam” of the stars. The moon’s “distilling” could be a reference to the purity of the moon rays that fall on the garden. All these are references to the calm and peaceful nature of natural entities in contrast with the disturbing affairs of the mind.

“…all is broken from its fullness”. Mental illness is a breakage of entire entities into bits and pieces. Nothing is full or entire anymore.

“A human cry cuts across a dream.

A wild hand squeezes an open rose.”

Dreams are not tranquil anymore. They are disturbed by human cries. It is the same as an open rose that is squeezed by a wild hand. The wild hand could be a force of nature that cannot be overcome by the rose. In the same way, the origin of the human cry is a psychological disturbance that cannot be overcome by the person.

The poet concludes the poem with the line

“We are in witchcraft, bedevilled.”

People affected by mental illness feel as though they are mere pawns in the hands of a witch, and that a devil has possessed them. This manifests in abnormal acts and mental agony that is entirely out of their control. Since they are possessed thus, there is little that anyone could do, to alleviate their misery. Thus, the poet seem to be taking a pessimistic view of mental illness.

Language and imagery

The first, second, third and fourth lines of the stanzas rhyme with each other in this short poem. The poem is replete with vocabulary that has negative connotations, such as “scrapes”, “barriers”, “ruffled”, “bedevilled” etc. The short sentences are a reflection of the fitful, urgent nature of a mentally ill person’s psychological state. The whole poem uses the garden seen at night, at a mental asylum as a metaphor for the state of mind of a mentally ill person.

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