When Stretch’d On One’s Bed by Jane Austen

With the brief poem When Stretch’d On One’s Bed, Jane Austen is able to cause readers to value the days of health they have. While the speaker experiences nothing more than a simple headache, it is one that is so debilitating that she learns to value her health on a greater level. The speaker’s realization also causes the reader to feel a sense of gratitude for health, and also to identify with the debilitation that is often the result of physical ailment. Austen successfully points out that health is fragile and limited, and her own resolution to seize the day, be thankful for her health when she has it, and enjoy her days, is in itself a call to readers to do the very same thing.

 

When Stretch’d On One’s Bed Analysis

Stanza One

When stretch’d on one’s bed
With a fierce-throbbing head,
Which preculdes alike thought or repose,
How little one cares
For the grandest affairs
That may busy the world as it goes!

These words, penned by renowned author, Jane Austen, give insight into her person. Many have grown to know and love Austen through her novels, including Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. All Austen’s novels reveal a society in which people love to dance and to dine together, to host “the grandest affairs” and the be a part of the “busy world as it goes”. Thus, it is no surprise that Austen would mention these very events in her poetry. However, it is ironic that she mentions them when she is not in a state fit to enjoy the events. In all of her novels, these types of events provide the enjoyment and entertainment that the characters in her novels often craved and strived to create. Here, however, the speaker is “stretch’d on one’s bed with a fierce-throbbing head”. The speaker can allow the reader to enter into the poem and feel the pain of the speaker. Even the most grand affairs seem of little importance to one who suffers physical pain.


Stanza Two

How little one feels
For the waltzes and reels
Of our Dance-loving friends at a Ball!
How slight one’s concern
To conjecture or learn
What their flounces or hearts may befall.

In this stanza, the speaker reveals that her head-ache has caused her not to care for “waltzes and reels” or any kind of dance. She has no curiosity about what her friends are talking about or what is going on in their lives. This stanza gives more insight into the speaker’s every day life, when she is not confined to her bed. She is concerned with the lives of her acquaintances, balls, dinners and other social gatherings. This particular stanza also reveals the way one’s entire world can shift by a small change in physical health.


Stanza Three

How little one minds

If a company dines
On the best that the Season affords!
How short is one’s muse
O’er the Sauces and Stews,
Or the Guests, be they Beggars or Lords.

This stanza continues to reveal the usual cares of the speaker’s life. She usually wants to know about the way “a company dines”, whether they have offered the best that the season had to offer. This continues to reveal a taste for high society. Wealth and worldly goods seem to be of utmost concern to her when she is healthy. Yet, when she falls ill, she has not a concern in the world whether the guests at a certain party were “beggars or Lords”. This in an interesting acknowledgement. It suggests that when life is at a stand-still, and one is confined to a bed with an aching head, the trivial things in life do not seem to matter.


Stanza Four

How little the Bells,
Ring they Peels, toll they Knells,
Can attract our attention or Ears!
The Bride may be married,
The Corse may be carried
And touch nor our hopes nor our fears.

With this line, the speaker suggests that when suffering physical pain, it does not even occcur to her to think about what she has missed, even if she missed an event so important as a wedding. Since most of Jane Austen’s novels center around the idea of true love, and usually climax at the beginning of a courtship which will inevitably end in marriage, one can conclude that even the most important of events in the speaker’s life cannot be thought of in the midst of physical pain and suffering.

 

Stanza Five

Our own bodily pains
Ev’ry faculty chains;
We can feel on no subject besides.

Here, the speaker admits that she can neither think nor speak of anything save for her pounding head. She has not the capacity to care about anything else that might be going on in her life or in anyone else’s lives.

 

Stanza Six

Tis in health and in ease
We the power must seize
For our friends and our souls to provide.

With the last stanza, the speaker comes to an important realization: that she must seize opportunity while she has her health. One pounding headache caused her to realize that physical ailment causes her to lose all her joy in life, all her concerns about affairs, and all her ability to be a part of other’s lives. For this reason, she concludes that she has learned that when she regains her health, she will value it. Now she realizes that she will not always have her health, and when it begins to deteriorate, she will no longer have the same capacity to enjoy life or to bring joy to others. For this reason, she says that “Tis in health and in ease we the power must seize”. She knows that when she has health and feels at ease, she has the power to experience true joy, and to bring joy to others.

 

Jane Austen Background

Jane Austen’s thoughts and beliefs come through her works quite clearly, and a knowledge of her other works of literature can offer insight into this particular poem. For example, all of her novels contain a form of ridicule of her society. She somehow embraces and scorns high society all at once. In her novels, her characters are often presumptuous, and think very highly of themselves, making judgements on others based upon their wealth and family standing in the community. Austen often uses her characters to create a satire which causes the readers to become aware of the hypocrisy of the society in which she lived. Thus, it is easy to see how this poem could do the very same thing. She reveals that all of the things that the people in her society care about and devote their entire beings to, could be swept away by a simple headache. This reveals the author’s belief that her society is fleeting, and the people often shallow, ignorant, hypocritical, and presumptuous. When read alongside her other works, this poem could also be read as a satire of her society.  

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