11. Enter Patient: William Ernest Henley

I chose this poem before we investigated health care policy in the United States. The poem is stark, straightforward and has clear, obvious evidence to support a theme; perfect for having middle school students write an analysis paragraph. It also works well in discussing imagery and the setting as a metaphor for the grim experience of going to a Victorian hospital. My students did not know until I told them that this poem was over one hundred years old; it stands the test of time. Henley published a collection of them under the title “In Hospital”

That said, a number of them were completely distracted by the little girl. Some thought the speaker was her mother. Others thought it was all by her. When I explained what a splint was (as opposed to a cast) and some of the less familiar vocabulary, a few focused on the poem’s age and not its theme. It is fascinating to see how their brains work.

Enter Patient
William Ernest Henley

The morning mists still haunt the stony street;
The northern summer air is shrill and cold;
And lo, the Hospital, grey, quiet, old,
Where Life and Death like friendly chafferers meet.
Thro’ the loud spaciousness and draughty gloom
A small, strange child—so aged yet so young!—
Her little arm besplinted and beslung,
Precedes me gravely to the waiting-room.
I limp behind, my confidence all gone.
The grey-haired soldier-porter waves me on,
And on I crawl, and still my spirits fail:
A tragic meanness seems so to environ
These corridors and stairs of stone and iron,
Cold, naked, clean—half-workhouse and half-jail.


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