The Mental Hospital Garden

Williams, William Carlos

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Apr-08-2002
  • Last revised: Sep-01-2006


The spirit of St. Francis of Assisi presides over the garden in spring. Hyacinths bloom, and abandoned bird nests are tucked away in the nooks and crannies. Young couples embrace: "St. Francis forgive them / and all lovers / whoever they may be." The scene then fast forwards to summer, when the lovers find themselves bewildered and "incredulous / of their own cure / and half minded / to escape . . . "

The idyllic garden has turned menacing, yet St. Francis continues to have compassion for the lovers who "resemble children / roused from a long sleep." One lover stands up unafraid in the sunlight "as her heart / beats wildly / and her mind / drinks up / the full meaning / of it." [139 lines]


According to Paul Mariani in William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (W. W. Norton, 1981), this poem is "about the fall from innocence into a new knowledge of one’s past, especially . . . the knowledge of one’s sexual fantasies and acts." (p. 664) The movement in the poem is from an original unknowing innocence (spring) into an awareness of sexual cruelty (summer), and finally to a kind of courageous acceptance.

The spirit of St. Francis permeates the garden throughout, although perhaps one must experience the seasons and achieve this acceptance before the depth of his compassion--or the meaning of his compassion--can be understood. Williams wrote "The Mental Hospital Garden" late in life, around the same time as "To Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," when he was taking stock of his lifelong propensity for womanizing, and the pain he had caused his wife.


Preface by Richard Wilbur

Primary Source

Sixty Years of American Poetry


Henry N. Abrams

Place Published

New York




Robert Penn Warren