Among a cannon of comedy, Spike Milligan’s Feelings strikes slightly darker. The first two stanzas of the poem focus on the heartache Milligan feels after a woman has ‘injure[d] him so’. Yet, in classic Milligan fashion, the final stanza reverts to comedy, ending the poem on a joke.
The poem is split into three unequal stanzas. The first two stanzas measure three lines, while the last spans five. The first two melancholic stanzas are much more regular than the comic third. The explosive comedy disrupts the melancholy and simultaneously the structure of the poem. The use of comedy dispels the melancholic tone, yet flashes of sorrow remain past the conclusion of Feelings.
You can read the full poem here.
Feelings begins with an exclamation, with Spike Milligan not understanding how he can be so hurt without physical damage. He seeks a ‘wound’ but cannot find one. The qualifying ‘this’ preceding ‘hurt’ elevates his pain, he is damaged by the emotional impact of the woman. Yet, he doesn’t quite understand how he can feel so bad if nothing physical has actually happened to him.
Contextually, for much of Milligan’s life he suffered from severe bipolar disorder. Milligan had at least 10 serious mental breakdowns throughout his life, some lasting for over a year. In the book written by Spike Milligan and Anthony Clare, ‘Depression and How to Survive It’, Milligan discusses his depression: ‘The pain is too much… something has happened to me’.
This linguistic parallel drawn between the poem and his own novel lead the reader to wonder if these first two stanzas are early writings on his own depression. This is a more serious poem, at least within the first two stanzas, and the idea of feeling terrible, but looking fine is one often attributed to depressive episodes. The stalk difference between the third and first two stanzas could also be taken as a symbolism of his own bipolar disorder, with the balance between the dispersive and manic periods being represented through form.
The double repetition of ‘No’ with ‘marks’ and ‘bruise’ again chimes into this confused and disbelieving tone. This is further suggested by his own implementation of the question mark opening the second stanza. Milligan cannot quite fathom how this woman has left such an emotional impact on him without leaving a physical ‘wound’.
The enjambment of the two lines also relates further to this sense of confusion. He swiftly flits between ideas, pondering what could have happened to him. The quiet uncertainty of ‘How could she injure me so?’ is oddly upsetting at this central moment within Feelings. The line is very honest, being positioned in the central stanza and being the only line punctuated. This enforced pause, due to the question mark, allows the reader to hover on his question, sharing in momentary melancholy.
Within this stanza, the tone of Feelings completely changes. Instead of the melancholic wonderings of the first two stanzas, the poet moves to his classic comedy. The break from form is evident from the first explosive word: ‘Worse!’. The tonal shift shatters the pervious melancholy as we move into this stanza. The impact of this line is elevated due to the punctuation, following on swiftly from the enjambement of the second stanza, the ‘Worse’ seems to come out of nowhere. Moreover, the monosyllabic word, followed by the exclamation mark, emphasises the sharpness of this moment.
Milligan explores the differences between appearance and reality when dealing with people’s emotions. This is a melancholic poem, one that deals with the personal pain he feels, yet ‘people say “my, you’re looking well”’. Milligan emphasises the idea that although someone may look fine, on the inside could be a completely different story.
Milligan further elevates this point through the extended ellipsis following his reflection on how people think he looks fine. The long moment of pause within the poem changes the pace completely. Whereas for the majority of the poem lines are enjambed and unbroken with caesura, here Milligan enforces a moment of complete silence. This can be taken as a representation of his thinking process, not understanding how he can be so hurt, yet look fine on the surface. Following this moment of silence, Milligan again disrupts and shifts the tone with another exclamation.
Mummification is an ancient Egyptian practise in which a body is preserved by embalming it and wrapping it in cloth. Using this metaphor, Milligan is suggesting that the woman has frozen his physical state. Although inside he feels worse and worse, on the surface he remains the same – he doesn’t change physically, no ‘wound’, but feels hurt.
The final word can be interpreted in multiple ways. It firstly completes the joke of the woman mummifying him. But at the same time, it also suggests that he keeps on living with this pain inside him. Milligan doesn’t understand what has happened and his confusion is evident in the explosive word. The capitalisation and exclamation mark culminate to finish the poem on a note of delirium.
Whereas most interpret the poem as comic, I would argue that this is one of the few poems in which a real sense of the poet’s own emotional state is reflected upon. Milligan doesn’t understand how he can feel so terrible, yet on the surface seem completely normal. He tries to explain his pain in the way most familiar to him, comedy and jokes. Yet within the poem flashes of melancholy permeate, showing a side of Milligan often hidden.
About Spike Milligan
Born on the 16th of April 1918, Terence Alan Milligan, better known as Spike Milligan, was a British-Irish poet, writer and comedian. He was born in Ahmednagar, India and grew up in Poona, India. He lived much of his adult life in England, and served in the British Army Royal Artillery division in World War II.
His poetry is often lovingly categorised under ‘literary nonsense’, with the purpose of comedy often being easily achieved. His poetry is widely known, with his poem *On the Ning Nang Nong* being amongst the ten most commonly taught poem in primary schools in the UK. He was very acclaimed during his life, even being made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 2001. He died on February 27th 2002 at the age of 83, although his legacy still lives on through his contribution to film, tv, music and poetry.