To the Madhouse

This month’s British Journal of Psychiatry reprints a poignant poem from the late English physician and poet Edward Lowbury:

To the Madhouse

What she has told us all a hundred times -
That old, unwanted women can again
Be hunted down, accused of pointless crimes
And burned in the public square; that it is vain
To plead ‚Äì or prove ‚Äì one’s innocence; that men
With solemn looks will come into the house,
And say, fearing a scene, `You’ll feel no pain;’
`It’s for your good;’ `We’re not ungenerous;’
What she foretold, when we dismissed her fear
Saying `You dreamed such things’ ‚Äì it now comes true:
The door is open, and the men are here.
Calmly they question her, and with a new
Smiling indifference drag her from the room
And through the streets to the expected doom.

The poem is apparently from one of his collections, entitled New Poems 1935–1989.

The image of the ‘mad woman’ is a recurrent theme in poetry and literature, particularly of times past, and was famously discussed in the 1979 book The Madwoman in the Attic.

One of the Wordworth’s most famous poems, The Mad Mother, is, perhaps, the best known example and recounts the words of a young lady who is experiencing what we would now call postpartum psychosis.

On the surface, it has a more cheerful outlook than Lowbury’s poem, although the content of the mother’s words belie the situation of the subject, rending the piece considerably more disturbing in many ways.

The picture on the right is by the 18th century French painter Th√©odore G√©ricault and is entitled Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy and is from his series of ten ‘portraits of the insane’.

At the time it was believed that madness could be seen in the face, and Géricault wanted to capture how different forms of insanity expressed themselves Рa project that preceded later attempts to do the same with photography.

Sadly, only five of the portraits survive, but they remain some of the most important works in the history of portraiture.

Link to short BJP article on the poem.
Link to Wordworth’s poem The Mad Mother.
Link to piece on G√©ricault’s ‘portraits of the insane’.

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