We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Women's Poetry: "Evening in the Sanitarium" · 17 July 05

My dear Fanny,

Here’s a beautifully ironic moving poem. My favorite line is "The period of the wildest weeping, the fiercest delusion, is over."

"Evening in the Sanitarium"

The free evening fades, outside the windows fastened with decorative iron grilles.
The lamps are lighted; the shades are drawn; the nurses are watching a little.
It is the hour of the complicated knitting on the safe bones of needles; of the games of anagrams and bridge;
The deadly game of chess; the book held up like a mask.

The period of the wildest weeping, the fiercest delusion, is over.
The women rest their tired half-healed hearts; they are almost well.
Some of them will stay almost well always; the blunt-faced woman whose thinking dissolved
Under academic discipline; the manic-depressive girl
Now levelling off one paranoiac afflicted with jealousy.
Another with persecution. Some alleviation has been possible.

O fortunate bride, who never again will become elated after childbirth!
O lucky older wife, who has been cured of feeling unwanted!
To the surburban railway station you will return, return,
To meet forever Jim home on the on the 5:35.
You will be again as normal and selfish and heartless as anybody else.

There is life left: the piano says it with its octave smile.
The soft carpets pad the thump and splinter of the suicide to be.
Everything will be splendid: the grandmother will not drink habitually.
The fruit salad will bloom on the plate like a bouquet
And the garden produce the blue-ribbon aquilegia.

The cat will be glad; the fathers feel justified; the mothers relieved.
The sons and husbands will no longer need to pay the bills.
Childhood will be put away, the obscene nightmare abated.

At the ends of corridors the baths are running.
Mrs C. again feels the shadow of the obsessive idea.
Miss R. looks at the mantel-piece, which must mean something.
——Louise Bogan (1941)


"There is life left."

High on my TBR pile is Susan Hill’s A Change for the Better; it and Gentleman and Ladies are about how hard it is to sustain humane values against a dark awareness of coming death and again. The former centers on Eleanor Thorne, a woman in her mid-80s whose controlling narrow husband, with whom she led an estranged lonely life, has died. She has a daughter utterly uncongenial to her, indifferent to most things, bitter & now materialistic, selfish, heartless. A typical line from Eleanor about this daughter:

""’My daughter does not have patience with memories. I wonder if it is because she has so few of her own. I am guilty in that respect. Perhaps I sheltered her from experience. But she did not seem to want to see it’".

This hits the same note as Aldous Huxley in The Genius and the Goddess when the now aging John Rivers reflects about his grown daughter:

". . . Look at Molly, for example. She had a mother who knew how to love without wanting to possess. She had a father who at least had sense enough to try to follow his wife’s example . . . There were no quarrels in the household, no tragedies or explosions. By all the rules of psychology-fiction, Molly ought to be thoroughly sane and contented. Instead of which" . . . He left the sentence unfinished."

Hill’s Gentleman and Ladies includes a son whose house is overburdened as it is. He invites her to come for a holiday with him first and "see," but she knows better. So she goes & stays in an old people’s home (as we call them in the US) and discovers bad as this is, it’s a change for the better from what she’s known. And then we meet and learn about, live with, all the people, mostly women, in the sanitarium. A Change for the Better is about lonely old people at the seashore out of season. (That’s where Swift’s Last Orders ends too.)

These are not quite Mann’s Magic Mountain. Let’s call them a corrective? I’m also wondering if this novella ought to be seen as a modern Cranford? Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell, is a gem about aging female gentility in a small village in England.


Louise Bogan (1897-1970) was for many years a staff writer at the New Yorker. She reviewed poetry for them and was herself primarily an essayist and poet. She married twice, had one daughter, was often depressed. Her poetry is great women’s poetry, l’ecriture-femme. Titles like "Medusa," "On Cassandra." "Evening at the Sanitarium" has many lines from a woman’s life. The ironic one about elation after childbirth is further developed in many lines in her others about the ambivalent experience of motherhood, e.g., "remembering the agony of the womb,/She says, ‘You do not love me,/You do not want me …". I love the quietly sardonic line about "academic discipline" dissolving away a mind.

Izzy and I have had a disappointment. It seems the film adaptations of Sayer’s novels about both Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey are only available in the US. And much frustration over our local community pool. It’s inexpensive but very constraining. You must swim laps in the lanes; there’s a young man who dressed in his petty authority sees fit to bully people into not doing half-laps in the free-swim area. Too many children because it hosts camps. I tried going last night because outside the air was sweltering, a hot swamp turned thick with dense humid mist, and found it closes at 7 on Saturdays. Jim says may be next year we’ll buy a membership somewhere or rent a cottage for a couple of weeks near a lake. The first is probably too expensive though and the second would only be for the two weeks we were there. So they are not a solution. Izzy and I need a place we can go to regularly, which we can enjoy with other people we can talk to too.

As I told my friend, Diana B, without projects and deep reading—and friends on lists—I would often feel very desolate indeed.

Did you notice the husband in Bogan’s poem is a Jim? I wonder what was Bogan’s "obscene nightmare"? I wake in the night and read Valerie Martin’s A Recent Martyr. Remarkable book, Fanny.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


commenting closed for this article