A Hospital Stay in 28 Poems

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we are sharing poems from our collection throughout April.

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

On our shelves of poetry sits In Hospital, a small, inconspicuous tome by British poet, critic, and editor William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), printed in 1908.

Henley was no stranger to hospital visits. As a child, doctors amputated one of his legs below the knee due to tuberculosis of the bone. Later in life, doctors recommended amputation of the other leg; Joseph Lister treated Henley at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and managed to save the leg.1

Queen Victoria visiting the Royal Infirmary Edinburgh (1881). This Infirmary building opened shortly after Henley's stay at the hospital. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Queen Victoria visiting the Royal Infirmary Edinburgh (1881). This Infirmary building opened shortly after Henley’s stay at the hospital. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Henley’s time at the Infirmary inspired In Hospital,1 a collection of 28 poems written between 1873 and 1875. Samuel Treat Armstrong, a physician and army surgeon who had chaired NYAM’s Section on Public Health and Hygiene, donated the book to our collection.2,3 In the volume’s endpapers, Armstrong pasted a New York Times article from September 1, 1912: “Ernest Henley: A Study of the Great Swashbuckler Poet.” The article notes:

To [Henley], life was the supremely important fact; art one of its manifestations. He never separated the work from the man behind it. He did not believe mere skill in the pretty arrangement of words sufficient excuse for writing . . . A man must have a sense of language (which makes literature an art) but he must also have something worth saying, and, having said it adequately, need not trouble about trimmings.

Here are some poems worth saying:

Like as a flamelet blanketed in smoke,
So through the anaesthetic shows my life;
So flashes and so fades my thought, at strife
With the strong stupor that I heave and choke
And sicken at, it is so foully sweet.
Faces look strange from space—and disappear.
Far voices, sudden loud, offend my ear—
And hush as sudden. Then my senses fleet:
All were a blank, save for this dull, new pain
That grinds my leg and foot; and brokenly
Time and the place glimpse on to me again;
And, unsurprised, out of uncertainty,
I wake—relapsing—somewhat faint and fain,
To an immense, complacent dreamery.

As with varnish red and glistening
Dripped his hair; his feet looked rigid;
Raised, he settled stiffly sideways:
You could see his hurts were spinal.

He had fallen from an engine,
And been dragged along the metals.
It was hopeless, and they knew it;
So they covered him, and left him.

As he lay, by fits half sentient,
Inarticulately moaning,
With his stockinged soles protruded
Stark and awkward from the blankets,

To his bed there came a woman,
Stood and looked and sighed a little,
And departed without speaking,
As himself a few hours after.

I was told it was his sweetheart.
They were on the eve of marriage.
She was quiet as a statue,
But her lip was grey and writhen.

Staring corpselike at the ceiling,
See his harsh, unrazored features,
Ghastly brown against the pillow,
And his throat—so strangely bandaged!

Lack of work and lack of victuals,
A debauch of smuggled whisky,
And his children in the workhouse
Made the world so black a riddle

That he plunged for a solution;
And, although his knife was edgeless,
He was sinking fast towards one,
When they came, and found, and saved him.

Stupid now with shame and sorrow,
In the night I hear him sobbing.
But sometimes he talks a little.
He has told me all his troubles.

In his broad face, tanned and bloodless,
White and wild his eyeballs glisten;
And his smile, occult and tragic,
Yet so slavish, makes you shudder!


1. William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2014, from http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/williamernesthenley.aspx

2. Transactions of the New York Academy of Medicine. (1894). New York: Press of Stettiner, Lambert, and Co.

3. Herringshaw, T. W. (1914). Herringshaw’s American Blue-book of Biography. Chicago: American Publishers’ Association.

4 thoughts on “A Hospital Stay in 28 Poems

  1. Extraordinary work from an unexpected place. Mired in my own black riddle momentarily on a gray day of mishap, I rebound at the tenacity of the wordsmith without minced meaning. I am a fan of the history of medicine & science. Must stop by soon. Thank you ever so much.

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