Hospital for Defectives

Thomas Blackburn

‘Hospital for Defectives’ by Thomas Blackburn depicts a speaker’s inability to understand why God would create men who are unable to communicate. 

Thomas Blackburn

Nationality: English

Thomas Blackburn was a British poet born in 1916.

He is remembered for his memoir, A Clip of Steel, and his collections of poems that explored identity.

Hospital for Defectives’ by Thomas Blackburn is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains eight lines, the second: twelve and the third: eight. Blackburn chose a mostly random rhyme scheme for this piece. Within the first stanza, there are only two sets of end rhymes, in the second and fourth lines and in the sixth and eighth. The same can be said for the second stanza. There are only a few moments in which rhyme can be found. Most notably in lines ten, nine, and twelve. Finally, the third stanza follows a similar pattern to the first, although with different end sounds. The rhymes remain in the same places. 

The lines also follow a specific metrical pattern. Starting with the first line, every other line is structured in iambic tetrameter. The remaining lines are in iambic trimeter. This means that the lines either contains four sets of two lines or three sets of two lines. 

Hospital for Defectives by Thomas Blackburn


Summary of Hospital for Defectives

Hospital for Defectives’ by Thomas Blackburn depicts a speaker’s inability to understand why God would create men who are unable to communicate or express themselves.

The poem begins with the speaker describing the silence of men in a turnip field. They work and say nothing to one another. These men belong to a mental hospital, meaning to him that they are “defective” in some way. 

It is important to note that a contemporary reading of these lines will be colored with new moral standards for thinking and speaking about the disabled. This was not the case when the poem was written, more than fifty years ago.

He continues on to describe the work the men do in the fields and conclude with a question for God. Why, he wonders, did God make these people? What could he possibly be trying to say through them that wasn’t said through “The eyelid and the rose.” 


Analysis of Hospital for Defectives 

Stanza One 

By your unnumbered charities 

A miracle disclose, 


By these men in a turnip field  

And their unleavened bread. 

In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by referring to God as the creator of miracles and wondrous images. He made such joys as the “eyelid and the rose.” In contrast, though, he created a group of people the speaker does not understand. They are the patients at a mental hospital, those whom he refers to as “defective” in the title. 

When the speaker looks around him he sees and hear’s God’s voice in his creations. When he looks to the “men in the turnip field” though he doesn’t understand what God was trying to say through their silence. It is in this stanza the reader first comes upon the metaphor comparing the men to “unleavened bread,” it will be fully articulated in the second stanza. 


Stanza Two 

For all things seem to figure out 

The stirrings of your heart, 

And two men pick the turnips up  


And one man strokes his knees; 

What is the meaning to be found 

In such dark vowels as these? 

The second stanza goes into greater detail about who the “men” referenced in the previous lines are. He lists out a number of different activities that these men participate in. It starts with the picking of turnips and then moves on to “two men pull[ing] the cart.” It should be noted that both of these activities are fairly simple. There is not much training needed to complete either successfully. This already says something about the capabilities of the men, or at least how their capabilities have been interpreted. 

The speaker takes these four men together, the two men picking turnips and the two pulling carts. He states that “between the four of them / No word is ever said.” The following lines try to explain, through metaphor, why this is the case. The speaker compares the brains of these men to unleavened bread. There is no “yeast” in their heads, keeping them from fully forming into “human bread.” Today this reads like a cruel, unfeeling depiction of the mentally handicapped. It depicts them as if they are lacking something crucial, or are in some way subhuman. 

The following lines speak on three more men who “stare on vacancy.” They are looking at nothing while one sits stroking his knee. Without the title, it might be unclear that these men in a hospital and have been diagnosed with some kind of mental disorder. By this point, the speaker has already emphasized the silence amongst these men. There is minimal communication if any at all. He says their words are “dark vowel,” they communicate nothing.


Stanza Three 

Lord of the Images, whose love

The eyelid and the rose


Through such men in a turnip field

What is it that you say?

The finals stanza also contains eight lines and begins again by describing the works of the “Lord of Images.” The speaker once more pays tribute to his creation of the “eyelid and the rose.” As stated previously he created an endless array of a beautiful life. 

Just like in the first and second stanzas, the speaker questions the creation of the “unleavened men.” They do not seem, to him, to have a purpose on the earth. He gives the example of when a “warder” strikes one of these men. They do not “turn…away” or cry out. If they did exclaim or fight back, it would, to him, prove their humanity and their ability to feel and think. Their silence on the other hand speaks to their inhumanity. 

He is unable to find God’s voice in the “men in a turnip field.” It is unclear what God wanted to depict through their creation. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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