This is the house of Bedlam. So begins the strong poem by Elizabeth Bishop, the woman who wrote of that wretched old man who lived in the house of Bedlam. "This is the man / that lies in the house of Bedlam." So go the two lines of the following stanza of the 1950 poem about the cranky old man who was kept for his crimes in the house of Bedlam. "This is the time / of the tragic man" begins the three lines of the following stanza of the nursery rhyme poem by the consummate poet who wrote of "the Jew in a newspaper hat / that dances joyfully down the ward" and the brilliantly cruel and crazy man who lived in the house of Bedlam.

"This is the soldier home from the war. These are the years and the walls and the door." So starts the 12th and last stanza of the metrical rhyming repetitive poem by one of the finest American poets about Ezra Pound, an American poet, who found himself at the end of the war "walking the plank of a coffin board" and because of his treason becoming the man--the tragic, talkative, wretched and tedious man--who lived in the house of Bedlam. [79 lines]


After World War II, Allied authorities prosecuted Ezra Pound, an American poet who lived in Italy, for his radio broadcasts and writings supporting the Fascist cause. His broadcasts were also virulently anti-Semitic. He was arrested for treason, but was judged insane and was remanded indefinitely to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a federally run mental hospital in the District of Columbia. His case became a cause celebre for a number of artists and writers, including Elizabeth Bishop, who worked to secure his release.

This poem rolls inevitably forward, satisfying the brain's craving for rhythm and repetition. Using a nursery rhyme-like additive pattern, Elizabeth Bishop juxtaposes images of the wretched man (Ezra Pound), the house of Bedlam (St. Elizabeths), and a variety of symbolic artifacts and personages--a sailor, a watch, a boy, the coffin board, and, of course, the Jew in the newspaper hat.

The Jew enters the poem in the 8th stanza, where he "dances weeping down the ward." His spirits improve and, by the 11th stanza, he is dancing "joyfully down the ward." Yet at the end of the poem, he takes a more measured stance and "dances carefully down the ward, / walking the plank of a coffin board . . . "

Primary Source

The Complete Poems, 1927-1979


Farrar, Straus & Giroux: Noonday

Place Published

New York