In his series of poems entitled "In Hospital" W.E. Henley records as dispassionately as possible his physical and psychological reactions to his environment as well as hospital personnel, fellow patients, visitors and death. The speaker's feeling of cold apprehension in "Enter Patient" contrasts with the giddiness of the final poem, "Discharged." In "Enter Patient" the narrator's spirits fail as he recognizes the "tragic meanness" of the place with its "corridors and stairs of stone and iron." The tone of the speaker is fairly dispassionate and objective throughout. The speaker relates his operation and experience of confinement without much trace of self-pity. The poet is mostly interested in the aesthetic, the concretion of detail and sharpness of outline of his surroundings and is in no way trying to illicit the reader's sympathy. In all of the poems, the speaker clings with an almost excessive zeal to basic physical sensations, and upon his release he experiences an overwhelming abundance of impressions:

THE morning mists still haunt the stony street;
The northern summer air is shrill and cold;
And lo, the Hospital, grey, quiet, old,
Where Life and Death like friendly chafferers meet.
Thro' the loud spaciousness and draughty gloom
A small, strange child — o aged yet so young! —
Her little arm besplinted and beslung,
Precedes me gravely to the waiting-room.
I limp behind, my confidence all gone.
The grey-haired soldier-porter waves me on,
And on I crawl, and still my spirits fail:
tragic meanness seems so to environ
These corridors and stairs of stone and iron,
Cold, naked, clean — half-workhouse and half jail.

Questions

How do instances of word play, especially in the second line, relate to the overall theme of the poem?

Does the speaker's tone reflect the cold, impersonal hospital environment where there is no individuality as in a jail or workhouse? Or is the speaker, by viewing his experiences through objective lenses, trying to separate himself from unpleasant memories? Is the speaker's voice completely dispassionate throughout the whole poem? Where do we see the speaker expressing more human emotion? (i.e. in his will to live despite the dread of life slipping away, etc.)

How does the narrator position himself? Is he more of an outsider looking in as he remembers experiences now in the past? (In "Before," the speaker invites the reader to behold the youth "waiting for the knife" as if from a third-person vantage point).

In his descriptions of people and surroundings, Henley reduces things to their elements and bare essences. How does he do this while almost never using color? Note also the description of the visitor in "Apparition" in contrast to the colorless, gray hospital ward.

Although the poem is in the form of a sonnet, how is it different from a conventional sonnet? Look at meter and the last line.

In the poems that follow "Enter Patient," Henley creates a "gruesome world" of "scissors and lint and apothecary's jars." How would Henley's Victorian audience have reacted to his crude realism?


W. E. Henley Leading Questions

Last modified 4 December 2003