Elizabeth Jennings

A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room by Elizabeth Jennings

If you love poetry of different poets and have read Elizabeth Jennings then you must be aware that in 1961 she was a psychiatric patient, and had to live in the mental hospital for some time. The poem, A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room, describes the experiences of Elizabeth. In the poem, we are told how people come to visit their patients but they don’t talk about their diseases. This poem by Elizabeth is remarkable not least because it is written following her recovery but also because it demonstrates if nothing else can, that the comprehending and observing intelligence remains alert during periods of serious illness. The intelligence continues to register and organize experiences. The poem, A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room, revolves around the poet’s experiences that she had when she was admitted as a psychiatric patient. It brings to us what it means and how it feels to be in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital.

A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room by Elizabeth Jennings


Analysis of A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room

As we read through the very first sentence of the poem, we find the speaker describing the paintings hanging on the walls of the psychiatric hospital waiting room where the poet was admitted. The painting of Utrillo, a French painter (whose specialization was cityscapes), was hanging on the wall, while Montmartre is a large hill situated in France. With the presentation of this scene of the mental hospital sitting room, the poet may want to tell us that the mental hospitals are not as we think or imagine of them. However, on the other hand, with the presentation of paintings in the very first two lines of the poem, the poet may also want to describe the desolation of the waiting room.

The poet in the following two lines says that the waiting room is itself like a “scream were opened wide” and “a mouth demanding everyone to listen,” which may mean to indicate the desperation rampant in the atmosphere of the mental hospital.

Too many people cry, too many hide

And stare into themselves.

Besides, the poet may also be talking about the typical desperation of psychiatric illnesses, which want others to know about it and is often found vocal about it. You must have seen a number of poems who knows how to vent out their misery, but there are also people who, dissimilar to the former ones,  “hide” all of their grudge and problems, remain confined to themselves, and also keep themselves ‘engrossed’ into themselves, without talking and sharing with anyone else around them.

I am afraid.

The speaker says that she is afraid. And this fear may be because of the illness she is facing, or it could also be because of the effect of the atmosphere of that mental hospital room where the speaker has been seeing misery all around since she has come here.

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

The poet further says that the mental illness is very dangerous. It may not kill a person, but it does rot him/her to such an extent that he/she wishes to die having seen the mental agony of psychiatric patients. The poet says the patients don’t even have any sort of protection or life belt whereon the patients or the poet can lean and vent out her misery. So, the disease of mental illness is so dangerous and tormenting that there is no escape from it unless it is properly and regularly treated. But it still leaves its symptoms imprints.

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


And talk of other things than our disease …

In this extract of A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room, the poet says that the psychiatric patients are, therefore, only left with the visiting hope of their near and dear ones who keep making visits to them, and ask about their mental condition. But all this looks futile when the visitors don’t talk about their illness. They just come to such a hospital to either chat or pass their time as a formality. However, it doesn’t give them any mental relief, rather their mental illness becomes more devastating due to the changed attitude of their near and dear ones.

So much is stagnant and yet nothing dies.

The above concluding line of the poem consists of the gist of the poem and tells us what it means to be a psychiatric patient and that too in a mental hospital which is stuffed with a lot of psychiatric patients, but we must not forget here that there are many people who have benefitted through it. The poet says that the misery of mental illness is stagnant in the sense that it feeds on itself ad nothing fresh is included to it. What most trouble the poet is that a disturbed mind doesn’t recover soon; rather it takes time and continues treatment. Though it is not a fatal disease, yet it may rot the person by being disintegrating and still. The speaker says: “So much is stagnant and yet nothing dies.”


Language and Imagery

Though the poem is short enough, it is full of words that best convey a sense of disaster desolation. A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room consists of a number of poems that help in conveying a sense of desolation and distress, for example; ‘cry’, scream’, ‘stare’, and ‘disease’. In addition, the poet also has a powerful image of water, which is getting still yet but dying, which is very much the state of the mentally sick mind.

Thus, the poem, A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room, best describes the Sitting-Room of a Mental hospital and brings to the readers how and what kind of atmosphere remains in the hospital. But at the same time, the poet also describes the mental agony of the visitors who do come to meet their patients but don’t ask anything about their disease.


About Elizabeth Jennings

Born in Boston, Lincolnshire, Elizabeth Jennings got into the poetry writing at when she was encouraged by one of her schoolteachers and by an uncle, who himself was a poet. She composed her earlier poetries on being inspired by Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, G. K. Chesterton’s “Battle of Lepanto”, and then the odes of Keats.

Afterward, Jennings was significantly swayed by the poetries of Edwin Muir and Robert Frost. In most of Jennings’s poems, you will come across strong logic, emotional sensitivity, avoidance of decoration, an absence of vagueness, and an eschewing of any mystification.

She had always kept in mind the proper and correct use of rhyme and meter when it comes to the form and structure of any poem. Her use of words and sentence format can be easily understood. All her poems are simple and without literary decoration and pretentiousness in literature.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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