Enter Patient

Henley, William Ernest

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Taylor, Nancy
  • Date of entry: Jan-24-2005
  • Last revised: Aug-17-2006


Outside, on a stony street, the narrator watches as the hospital he’s about to enter materializes out of Edinburgh’s cold morning mists. The hospital is described as a place "gray, quiet, old / Where Life and Death like friendly chafferers meet." Like contemporary hospitals, it has a "draughty gloom" and loud spaces.

The narrator, who is the entering patient, follows into the hospital a small, "strange" child with her arm in a splint. She precedes him gravely; he limps behind. The narrator feels his spirits fail as he recognizes the "tragic meanness" of the place, a place with "corridors and stairs of stone and iron / Cold, naked, clean--half-workhouse and half-jail."


A century later, this hospital is a surprisingly recognizable place, unsettlingly like a "modern" hospital. In this, the first poem in Henley’s sequence entitled In Hospital (see this database), we note, through his impersonal tone, the narrator’s need to separate himself from what is happening. The hospital, in Victorian times and especially before Lister’s successes with antiseptic surgery, was a place of gangrene and death, so it is not surprising to find the narrator describing it in terms both hard and cold (stony / stone, iron, shrill, meanness, naked, workhouse, jail). Henley’s choices of "shrill"--containing the word ill--and "environ"--containing the word iron are surely not happenstances. In addition to being personified, Death is referred to often: haunt, grave-ly, stony, cold, a gray-haired soldier-porter.

Although the poem is a sonnet, the meter is uneven and, at the end, breaks down into a last line of spondees. As a first poem in a series, "Enter Patient" foreshadows methods and themes that will follow in the remaining 27 poems: the use of opposites (in this poem, Death--which comes first--and Life, summer and cold, spaciousness and gloom, old and young); interiors that chill; a keen awareness of individuals, both professional and nonprofessional; fear, loneliness, and suffering; and the difficulties of recovering (or not) from illness.


The 1970 AMS edition of the Henley poems is a reprint of the 1908 London edition.

Primary Source

William Ernest Henley, Poems. Vol. I



Place Published

New York