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.
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.