E Elizabeth Jennings

Night Garden of the Asylum by Elizabeth Jennings

As already discussed in many analyses of Elizabeth Jennings’s poems that if you love and read Elizabeth, then you must know that in 1961, the poet had to live for some time in the mental hospital due to psychological illness. The varied experiences, the poet then underwent as a psychiatric patient, are quite visible in many of her poems, such as ‘A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room‘, ‘Sequence in a Hospital‘, ‘Night Garden of the Asylum’, and a few more wherein the poet has reflected on her own experience of living in a mental asylum.

In the poem, ‘Night Garden of the Asylum’, also the poet talks about the psychological illness, and the mental disturbances that a mentally-ill patient has to endure. In fact, it directly relates to the experiences Elizabeth had to go through when she lived in a mental asylum.

Thus, here in this poem, the poet not only talks about the disturbances, caused by the psychological illness and mental disorder, but also relates the mental illness to her own experiences she had to undergo during her stay in a mental asylum.

Night Garden of the Asylum by Elizabeth Jennings


Night Garden of the Asylum Analysis

An Owl’s call scrapes the stillness.


We are in witchcraft, bedevilled.

As you read through the very first verse of ‘Night Garden of the Asylum’, you will find that the poet has presented it in a very metaphorical way, when she says: “An Owl’s call scrapes the stillness.” With this, the poet leads us to think that she is going to talk about something negative as the owl is an indication of a bad omen.

The poet says that just as an owl’s cry “scrapes” the night sky; likewise the silent cry of a psychologically-ill person too rips apart the silence of the mind.

The poet further says that every curtain, in the mental hospital, draws a boundary line, and doubles as a ‘barrier’ for a mentally-ill person, stopping him/her to know another psychologically-ill person in the kingdom of mental agony.

Elizabeth says the way you find a garden arranged in a very neat rows, in the same way, the mental asylum has very tidy arrangement of beds, properly and neatly rowed. But all that tidiness is just an affectation as they may be appearing tidy outwardly, actually; they can be easily “ruffled”. This may also suggest that a person may look like a gentleman outwardly (neat and tidy- well-dressed and well-mannered), but you never know what mental agony he/she is going through.

The poet, in the fifth line of the poem says, the garden in the mental asylum may be well-arranged with complete tidiness, but it is not aware of the mental agony the patients are going through. It merely knows the “slow gleam” of the stars, and the “moon’s distilling”. By referring the moon’s “distilling”, the poet may be referring to the purity of the moon light falling on the garden.

With this reference, the poet also wants to make us understand natural entities like moon, stars and others remain very calm and peaceful as opposed to a disturbing state of mind.

Moreover, when the poet says “all is broken from its fullness”, she wants to say that mental illness breaks all entities into bits and pieces. All that is leveled gets broken, and the fullness of all arranged things in the garden and mental asylum gets broken as “A human cry cuts across a dream./A wild hand squeezes an open rose.”

The poet says the dreams don’t remain tranquil for long. Their tranquillity gets disturbed due to the human cries. It’s quite like an open rose, which gets squeezed by a wild hand. Here the reference of “wild hand” may be related to the force of nature that a rose cannot overcome. Likewise, the human cry is caused by a psychological disturbance that a person is not able to overcome. The human cry may also mean to break and disturb the silence of the mental asylum, and the line: “A wild hand squeezes an open rose” may indicate towards the disturbed mind that can squeeze and destroy even the tender things in the garden.

In the concluding line when the poet says: “We are in witchcraft, bedevilled,” she may mean that the mentally-ill people are like pawns that have been captured and clutched by the devilish spirit, or a witch, which keeps haunting and disturbing them continuously. And this is the reason why they act abnormally, and are possessed by the mental agony, which is beyond their control. Having a pessimistic view towards mental illness and psychological disturbances, the poet says when a person is possessed by mental-illness; there is hardly anyone who can help him/her out to get rid of it. They are in “witchcraft,” “bedevilled.”


Language and Imagery

Although the poem, ‘Night Garden of the Asylum’, by Elizabeth Jennings, is very short, yet the first, second, third, and fourth verses of its each stanzas rhyme with one another. The poem consists of a number of terms which connote negatively. For example, while reading through the poem, you will find words like “scrapes”, “barriers”, “ruffled”, “bedevilled” etc., which best justification with the theme of the poem. The poem also comes structured with short sentences, which reflect the fitful, restless, quick nature of a psychologically-disturbed person.

Besides, the poet makes use of a garden scene at night in a mental asylum as a metaphor, and compares its tranquil state with the disturbed state of mind of a mentally-ill person. Overall, Elizabeth had presented the best picture of a mental asylum, and by comparing night garden’s tranquillity with the tranquillity, she has given the best picture of a disturbed mind of a mentally-ill person.

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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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