‘Sequence in a Hospital’ by Elizabeth Jennings is an eight section poem that is divided up into stanzas of varying lengths and narrators. All of the sections of this piece vary in their rhyme scheme. This helps the sections stay unified in their own purposes and within their own narrator’s voices. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Sequence in a Hospital
“Sequence in a Hospital” by Elizabeth Jennings speaks on the hopes, fears, and routines that develop during a long stay at a hospital.
This sequence of events begins with a speaker who has lost all hope. She is in bed experiencing the loss of control over her own body and over her mind’s ability to hide the truth of her situation from her. Still she fights, as this one spec of reality that she is able to still perceive is better than the “oblivion” of the needle.
The people of the hospital do many things in a attempt to block their minds from the truth of their sickness. They look at photos, the view, and even discuss the disease until it has no meaning. The poem travels to the bedside of a woman who has just received surgery. She tells of her all encompassing fear before the procedure and how it was not attached to any one moment or action but rather to the general present. She is recovering now, but she is not the same.
The poem then moves on to speak on the people of the “Ward” who are like children stuffed into bed together. The rooms are cramped but instead of being filled with toys, they are littered with flowers. There are visitors that come to the hospital and the speaker describes how when they visit her she puts on a “social smile” to greet them. She must pretend and then use the strength she gains from them later when she needs it the most.
The hospital in it’s silent hours is not truly silent. There are the movements of the patients, the slipping of their minds, and the suffering of “humankind.” Death can be heard and seen everywhere, although it is not talked about. The poem begins to conclude with the thoughts of a dying woman who is hated by her visitors for causing them unease, and the thoughts of a narrator who sees these tense moments and wants to break them. The final stanzas describe this narrator’s desire to either become part of the hospital or to break all the patients free of their unbearable stillness.
Analysis of Sequence in a Hospital
In the first four line stanza of the first section of this poem, the speaker begins by describing herself as being at her “wit’s end.” She has passed the point where she has any hope, or sense of how things are going to turn out and all of her “resources [are] gone.” She could mean this both literally, in that she has no more money or economic lines to lean on, and that mentally she is drained.
The speaker is in bed pondering her circumstances and the reduced state of her own body. As the fear courses through her, she can feel her body go “tense.” She is no longer able to keep the feeling from surfacing.
Her mind has weakened. It is incapable of blocking out the emotion as it used to. Her “nerves” are so frayed that she is unable to think rational thoughts, and her mind no longer acts as a “safe retreat” from the reality of her life.
She goes on to state that her mind is no longer able to “serve” the demands of her body. It does not do what she would like it to, nor is her mind able to disguise the reality of her life. It seems as if up until now she had no fully addressed the tenuousness of her own situation. But that wall she put up is gone.
Her “heart” and “whole body” are now “[yield]ing” to fear.
Due to this decline in her physical and mental state the appearance of the world is changing. The objects around her are losing their “solidity” and faces do not appear to her in any particular way. It is as if everything is blurring and slipping from her understanding.
Even though all this is happening the speaker states that she still “fights the stronger / Terror.” This being the “oblivion” that washes over her when the “needle [is] thrust in” her arm. She does not want to lose the little capacity for understanding that she has left by succumbing to the peace of morphine.
II The Ward
The second section of this piece, “The Ward” gives a greater overarching view of what it is like to work in, or visit this part of the hospital. One may assume that the speaker from the first section is one of the patients described in this second section.
The new narrator describes the ward and how all around, patients keep “photographs of grandchildren” or spend time discussing their “disease.” Others are consumed by the memories of “gardens” once tended and “marriages” that are long since over.
All of these memories are coping mechanism in which patients participate to put their mind at ease. By only allowing themselves to think about these things they are able to keep “death at bay by building round their illness.” They can do this by remembering the past as greater than it was. They honor it now as they never did while it was happening.
In the following six lines, the ward is further described. While all this is going on inside the ward, outside, the sun is coming through the windows and the earth is reaching “gently” for the next season. Time is moving on with or without the sick and dying.
Out in this world people are not thinking of pain. They are the lucky ones, and the patients would not change the situation. They would not cast their own pain upon those going about the daily lives. This would not bring them peace.
They are able to claim a little of that through the dreams they have, the photographs they look at and a “view” from the window.
III After an Operation
In the third section of the poem, “After an Operation,” the reader can assume that a new speaker is taking over the role of describing another part of the hospital. This monologue is more personal. It describes the fear felt by one patient before and after an operation is preformed.
She does not quite know how to begin, but needs to convey the fact that above all else she was “afraid. “ This was not a normal fear of a particular action or occurrence, it was “absolute” and all encompassing.
The speaker was at it’s beck and call. No matter what she did she could not get away from it.
In the past she remembers that her fear used to be attached to certain things. She was not afraid in the “general” way that she was before her operation. The “Past” and “future” meant nothing to her, only the present which “bore / This huge, vague fear.”
Even while the speaker is living in this cocoon of fear, “life still stirred.” Her nerves were on spectacularly sensitive to everything and it seemed as if she and her body were prepared to do whatever it took to find “further ways to live.” It was this determination that saw her through the procedure.
Now this time of fear is passed and she is “convalescent,” recovering after the surgery. Fear does not have that same “general power” over her that it used to. It may be gone, but she was changed by it.
IV Patients in a Public Ward
The poem continues on chronologically through a hospital visit. The narrator of this section is once more taking a larger omniscient look at the time of recovering.
The patients are said to look “Like children now” as they lie so close together in their beds. There are flowers strewn everywhere, just as children’s toys would be in a bedroom.
In this situation of recovery, the patients are said to speak about their disease “to please” themselves that they have not yet died. This gallows talk gives them strength and hope that they will overcome it for good.
The narrator describes in this stanza how wellness, and perhaps a cure, leading back to the “heathy world,” are held away from the patients. The prospect is a tease, somewhere in the future where one is able to experience real emotions such as “hate and hope.” This “Healthy world” is full of different types of pain, ones that are to be desired.
The world in which the patients are living in much simpler. It is filled with the “things we need.” They are “unbeautiful” things yet still they are “desired.” They can be as simple as a “glass to hold.”
The speaker continues describing the simplicity of desire in the hospital by saying that even a “sip” or water of a “cube of ice” can fulfill a desire inside the hospital.
The simplicity of the hospital is comforting. It creates for them a type of “sealed-off nest” in which even the smallest “alarm” makes the presence of death known. Because their schedules are so regulated, any variation can speak of disaster. Their schedules also make them, in a way, more vulnerable to “death” as there is no where “left to hide” and there will be no “peace” gained by “lying still.”
V The Visitors
In the fifth section of the poem the speaker is discussing the presence of visitors. They come and see her, and in an attempt to please them, she tries to “keep / A social smile upon [her] face.” She does not show the truth of herself as even in the deep seriousness of the hospital there is “Some ceremony required.”
She has decided that having a “deep / Relationship” is dangerous as it will just “clear” all of her emotions “to one side.” She will not be able to share herself fully. It is not made evident whether this is in regard to romantic or friendly relationships, or both.
Her visitors come to see her and do not seem to have a positive impact on her wellbeing. When they come they make her want “To cry,” as she says, the “sick weep easily.” Then when they have gone away she will be drained of her strength, feeling “limp and faint.”
She will not be able to control her heart, but she is all able to see a path through her “illness.” She has one great wish which is to have no pain, and no possibility of the fear of pain returning.
In the final stanza of this section the speaker manages to say a few nice things about her visitor or visitors. She describes the “absence” of this person from her life as being a stronger emotion than all the pain she felt. The speaker is always happy when at her weakest, her mind turns to thoughts of “you again.” This unknown and unnamed visitor has, through her thoughts of them, helped her through the longest nights in the hospital in which she “longed” for light to “break.”
This person was to her the “life” and “rain” in a “sick desert.”
The speaker has moved on to the quiet hours of the “Hospital,” in which time seems to “stand, Between these beds and pause,” until something, like a “shriek” breaks through the silence and reminds everyone that “humankind is suffering still.”
In these quiet hours, the speaker invites the reader to “Observe the tall and shriveled flowers.” This metaphor represents the patients of the hospital who are both strong and weak at the same time. Their “fevered eyes,” stare around them through all hours of the night and their footsteps sound like the falling of flower “petals” as they wander through the hallways
The hospital at night, or in it’s silent moments is never without some action. “Silence” is never able to take a full “hold” on the world. At most, it manages a “tentative… grip.”
In this moment in which life seems to stand still, “Limp hands” are folded on their “blankets” and minds are slipping from bodies. People are lost in this perceived silence.
The environment in which the hospital is operated does not speak of death. It is too evident, and too real, to “palpable” to need mentioning. It is part of their world “by default.” Because it is all consuming, there is no need or desire to expand on it further.
Instead of speaking of death in this piece or within the confines of the hospital, the speaker describes it in quiet movements. She can see and hear death in the “muffled cries” of patients behind drawn curtains and in the look of dying flowers, right before the petals fall.
The whole world, life and death, is narrowed down to these simple motions and movements. Life becomes, small and full of silent suffering.
In this world there is no need for all encompassing statements about the meaning of life or why humankind must suffer, the “philosophies” are unwanted here. Their “Large words slink off,” and any meaning or comfort they might have help depart along with “faith” and “love.”
These things do not bring the reassurance that the patients need, only the “thumping of the human heart” can do that.
The speaker describes one person, or the epitome of one type of person, that unable to accept their present situation weeps into his pillow. This person is mediating on what it was to be well and to live in the other world outside the hospital.
VII For a Woman with a Fatal Illness
The seventh section of the poem speaks on the “verdict” given to a woman who has a “Fatal Illness.” This woman has received the news that there is no hope for her. Her new existence is one without “hope, hate, revenge even self-pity.” She lives in a new state in which she happily accepts the things that people bring her and professes courage at the fact that she will die sooner rather than later.
The visitors that once came with optimism are now “dumb, reduced only to gestures.”
These visitors feel that they are “Helpless” when confronted with this news about her looming death. With their misplaced emotions they feel hatred toward “You because you are the cause of their unease” in this situation. They do not know how to act and they blame “you” for it.
The observant speaker, now for the first time referring to herself as “I,” watches all of this unfold, perhaps as she has been watching the rest of the poem play out.
She wishes in this moment for something violent to happen, anything to break the “terrible tension” in the room. The final line of this section verbalizes her frustration.
Death, she thinks, does not have any right to creep up on one so “quietly.”
Quietness is expanded on in the beginning of the final section of the poem. The hospital is so still and silent, without anything to disturb it’s rhyme that the speaker hopes for a “Storm” or “Lightening” to act as a new “companion” to the grief experienced by all those there. The “helplessness” in the way that the patients “lie” is unbearable to her.
They seem to her, and they are, as the previous sections have shown, often times “Beyond hope, fear, love.” This lack of emotion is scary to the observant speaker. She hates the staleness and placidity of the moment and wishes to break it with a “shout.”
The only movements that the patients make are those made in “pain” and they are utterly subject to what their bodies decide to do. This, she thinks, can change on a “mere whim.”
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker places herself within the silence of her environment. She sees herself as being a part of this in-between that all are a part of, and she dos not like where she is placed. She believes that she would feel some relief in the reanimation of these silent people or perhaps the sickening of herself. She wants to go to one extreme or the other, if need be.
About Elizabeth Jennings
Elizabeth Jennings was born in Lincolnshire, England in July of 1926. She was a devout Roman Catholic and was educated at Oxford High School, through which she discovered her love for poetry, and then at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. After graduating she became a librarian at Oxford City Library and it was during her time there that she published her first collection of poetry, Poems. It was released in 1953 and was followed by A Way of Looking, in 1955. This collection won her a Somerset Maugham Award.
Throughout her life Jennings published over twenty books of poetry and she continued to write, preparing new volumes, until she died in Bampton, Oxfordshire in 2001.