‘Doomed shapely ersatz thought’: Francis Webb, Ward Two and the Language of Schizophrenia


Francis Webb’s Ward Two is based on Webb’s hospitalisation for schizophrenia in Paramatta in the 1960s, and was the first Australian poetic sequence concerned with the experience of being institutionalised for mental illness. Whilst anti-psychiatrists condemn the harmful influence of psychiatry, and the social model of disability suggests that disability is a social construction, the poetry of Ward Two holds up the nuances of the institution, the society surrounding it and the disabilities suffered by those within. Through a dry, self-deprecating tone characteristic of mid-century Australian poets, and setting himself apart from the Romantics and American confessionals, Webb represents his speaker and other patients as holy, artistic and transcendental. Although the lines are self-consciously ironic, their sonic effects also suggest, in sincere celebration, that the psychiatric subjects have some spiritual quality that others lack. In this liminal space, those condemned by society – the mad, the gay and the mentally disabled – can recover their identities, thoughts and language, even through the process of losing them. While Foucault wrote that psychiatry is a monologue by reason about madness, Webb’s poetry is a monologue about madness by both reason and unreason, as his surrealist lines have the inventive leaps that align it with unreason, but they also have the calm mode of address and high order linguistics to align it with reason. This affords it a unique position through which it can speak about mental illness that sets it apart from the pathologising language of psychiatry, and the romanticising language of anti-psychiatry. I argue that Webb’s poems, synthesising beauty and pain through imagery, rhyme and metaphor, can depict the subtleties of the schizophrenic mind, and the harmful and healing aspects of psychiatry and the institution.

Australian poet Francis Webb (1925–1973) was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1950s (Delmonte 1; Ashcroft 59) and was hospitalised from the early 1960s at places such as Bloomfield, Parramatta Psychiatric Centre, Callan Park, Plenty Hospital and Rydalmere (Powell, ‘The Nameless Father’ 490). Webb was born in Adelaide in 1925 and his mother Hazel tragically died of pneumonia when he was two years old (Griffith 11). Following Webb’s mother’s death, his father entered a deep depression from which he never recovered, and he was hospitalised at Callan Park Hospital and later Balmain Hospital, where he died at the age of fifty-two (Griffith 11). Rodolfo Delmonte argues that ‘The loss of his mother, and the subsequent dislocation of his affections to a different person, could well have prevented him from developing a strong and secure ego and could be regarded as one cause of his so-called mental illness’ (7). Another potential contributing factor was the life-long emotional trauma from his experience as a rear gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force (Ashcroft 1–2). In 1950, Webb had a breakdown and attempted suicide following revelations of his illustrator Norman Lindsay’s anti-semitism, a form of cruelty which he was sensitive to. This was the onset of his schizophrenic condition (Griffith 107–8). In a later hospitalisation, Webb was in Ward Two, Parramatta from December 1960 to January 1962. After being transferred to Ward Eight in February 1961, he wrote to a chief medical officer asking to return to Ward Two, where he said he was incapable of ‘poetry requiring any intellectual scale’, but where he ‘can strive to scribble out the odd slight and truncated piece’ (Griffith 257–58). In this paper I will explore Webb’s Ward Two’, from his final collection The Ghost of the Cock, a sequence of eight poems that features individuals in Parramatta Psychiatric Ward, a rare piece about hospitalisation that was written in spite of the powerful stigma surrounding illness and institutionalisation, a taboo subject that no Australian poet of renown had hitherto explored. It shows the psychologically fraught and complex space of the post-war Australian mental institution and is the last great sequence of Webb’s series of poems of institutionalisation that stretch across several collections from 1952 to 1970’s ‘Incident’.

In a separate poem, ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’ (1952), possibly the first Australian poem set in a mental hospital, Webb described a mentally ill person (possibly himself) as a ‘dead word-haunted man’, a chilling image that reflects the subject’s susceptibility to language, as well as the effect of words, making him feel ‘dead’, empty, or even non-existent (100). In ‘Hospital Night’ (1961), a speaker unwell and suffering in bed is subject to the stimulus of a fellow patient’s murmur, which is magnified to catastrophic and extreme proportions, language assuming an ungainly significance. Although schizophrenia is described in ‘Electric’ (1961) as ‘the sacred illness’, in ‘Clouds’ (1964) this romantic perception dissipates, where Webb conflates the schizophrenic mind with the environment through metaphors such as ‘rich surplus of consciousness rots at the wharves’ (260, 307). I argue that Webb uses the polysemic nature of poetry to show that language can be both a way into and a way out of suffering. Webb simultaneously critiques and defends the institution, noting that it controls language and the narratives of the patients within, but that it also fulfils an important paternal function in keeping out language that could be harmful or overly stimulating. It is in this contested space that patients find ways to express themselves and find their autonomy and self-determination within the hospital.

Much of Webb’s poetic is concerned with the representation of mental illness, and in this essay I seek to show that his notion of suffering is bound up with notions of language, both written and verbal. Ashcroft argues that schizophrenics such as Webb ‘become supremely adept at metaphoric discourse because they enter the realm of metaphor’, and that they ‘experience metaphor in a frightening and direct way’ (66–68). In the face of experiencing language and linguistic functions in a way that produces terror, Ashcroft elaborates that ‘The schizophrenic’s linguistic skills can be seen as the painstakingly developed ability to produce order out of a world which has been consistently presented as inchoate, senseless, and dangerous’ (90). Webb uses poetic language to show that language becomes palpable, exhilarating and terrifying for the speaker, but in making sense of suffering through words, he also shows that language is a way out of pain. As Chris Wallace-Crabbe observes, ‘Webb had no tool other than his poetry with which to probe the threats and paradoxes of his world, a world which was for a paranoid schizophrenic constantly beating and battering in at all the portals of knowledge’ (Delmonte iv). This pain was a key part of Webb’s oeuvre, but it was also something that Webb tried to escape or remedy in his poetry; he once said, ‘All my life has been chaos and horror, but I have tried to create order and beauty in my poems’ (Powell, Francis 84). I argue that Webb’s sequence considers the psychiatric model, which defines psychosis as characterised by delusions, hallucinations and disordered speech, focusing on the disorganised and abnormal aspects of a person’s language (Martin and McFerran), and leads readers through poems where different psychiatric patients struggle for agency and authority. Webb’s verse also has points of sympathy with anti-psychiatry theorists of the 1960s and 1970s such as R. D. Laing, who argued that madness need not be all breakdown but that it may also be breakthrough, ‘potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death’ (110). Laing asserted the value of listening to the schizophrenic or psychotic, asserting that ‘the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed’ (27). Laing’s argument, which has been criticised as romanticising the pain of mental illness, is echoed in Jean Khalfa’s introduction to Foucault’s History of Madness: ‘Able to perceive forces which, from the inside, threaten the great organisation of the world and of humanity, the mad seem to reveal and belong to the limits of our world’ (Foucault xvi).

In ‘Ward Two’, the speaker senses a pure and holy transcendence in his fellow patients, as well as a wretched state of being rejected from society. In these poems, those experiencing psychiatric disabilities are associated with the persecuted condition of Christ and the disembodied nature of the Holy Spirit, and Webb uses a tone of dry irony to elevate the patients and recognise their plight. While Michael Davidson argues that ‘a poetics – as much as a politics – of disability is important … because it theorizes the ways that poetry defamiliarizes not only language but the body normalized within language’, Webb’s poetic defamiliarises not only language but the mind normalised within language (118).


Webb’s ‘Ward Two’ opens with the poem ‘Pneumo-encephalograph’, whose title refers to a painful procedure in which a bubble of oxygen is injected into the spinal cord so that tumours in the brain may be located, and which was used as a technique in the investigation and treatment of psychiatric patients. Webb biographer Michael Griffith reads this opening poem as describing the occasion when a fellow patient – someone other than Webb’s speaker – is subjected to this process, yet notes, ‘At the time of writing Webb was himself enduring unspeakable deprivations and discomforts’ (260). Griffith’s reading interprets the pneumo-encephalograph procedure as being enacted on this fellow patient with a poet-speaker expressing empathy for their suffering (260). Another way of reading the poem, however, is that Webb’s speaker refers to Webb himself, a psychiatric subject who ‘sits and writes’, and that the alternating pronouns ‘my’ and ‘you’ refer to a division in the subject, a conflict between self-address and self-expression.

In the first stanza, the speaker describes his psychic pain – ‘Today’s guilt and tomorrow’s blent; / Passion and peace trussed together, impotent’ – suggesting there is not only a blurring between self and other, but a fusion of present and future guilt, an impossibly ruminative state that renders him helpless (315). As the poem progresses, Webb engages military imagery, comparing the doctors’ bubble of air to a guerrilla force hunting out the ‘sore’ of illness. Not only does this construct psychiatric treatment as targeted and aggressive, but the poet-speaker also loses his clothes, individuality and autonomy, forced to cooperate in a war in which his body and mind become the battleground.

The spore of oxygen passes

Skidding over old inclines and crevasses,

Hunting an ancient sore,

Foxhole of impulse in a minute cosmic war.

Concordat of nature and desire

Was revoked in you; but fire clashes with fire. (315)

As the poem produces images of fused opposites, each rhyming couplet ends with words that sonically resonate whilst having a key semantic difference. In this way, the union of opposites produces musical verse, just as the tensions between art and medicine produce a redemptive moment at the end of the poem. The rhymes resemble both incantatory religious chanting and the sounds of a military march, emulating the two strains of imagery and interweaving ideas of conflict and peace. Delmonte argues that the juxtaposition of opposite images evidences a dimension of pain, and that the continual struggle, or ‘coacervate of opposite forces’, works towards an ‘ultimate illumination’ (118, 16). Delmonte’s term ‘coacervate’ is taken from chemistry, referring to the separation of two liquids upon the addition of a third component; in this instance, the two elements may be pleasure and pain, which are separated and distinguished through faith, art, or some transcendent quality.

The doctors wield ‘Instruments supple as the flute’, with ‘Vigilant eyes’ and ‘mouths that are almost mute’; the humming alliteration creates a light static background to these figures that are benign, but who also have some silent and anonymous menace (315). Suddenly the space becomes neutral and beautiful territory, with ‘X-rays scintillant as a flower, / Tossed in a corner the plumes of falsehood, power?’ (315). Finally, the image ‘Of pain’s amalgam with gold’ elicits associations of Christ’s suffering and ultimate glory, and provides yet another image of elements in tension, before the last couplet is delivered: ‘While, pale and fluent and rare / As the Holy Spirit, travels the bubble of air’ (315). The notion of redemptive suffering is a common theme in Webb, such as in ‘Hospital Night’, where the speaker suffering in bed moves their attention to the star and a moment of spiritual harmony. In ‘Pneumo-encephalograph’, the torsion between pain and triumph leads to an injection of pale fluids, and although for some this might connote sexual climax, Webb’s final image is also one of spiritual consummation. Ironically, the psychiatric procedure contributes to the moment that anti-psychiatrists may describe as a ‘breakthrough’ or a form of enlightenment, an experience that they argue is suppressed through the medical model. Laing wrote of this in The Politics of Experience where he said that what we call ‘schizophrenic’ was ‘one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds’ (107). In Webb’s image, it is the combination of illness and treatment that allows the Holy Spirit or metaphorical light to break through, and so Webb takes the anti-psychiatric idea that illness is breakthrough and combines it with the idea that treatment can also be an illuminating force.

Another reading is that the subject’s power to write is usurped by the doctors, who subject him to yet another art in which he must play his part. As well as becoming a renewed being, it is also as if the persona becomes a fictional entity rather than autonomous author, becoming subsumed into language rather than being an agent of language. The doctors wield elongated, pen-like instruments over him, writing their discourses onto his body and mind. In this way, Webb opens ‘Ward Two’ with his speaker finding purgation of sins through suffering; but this is through submission to psychiatry, where he becomes a character created by language, rather than a writer who produces words. The poem creates a parallel between the religious language and the language of the psychiatric procedure, and words of medicine, the subject’s art, and the Christian Word, which all become relevant in producing the redemptive moment. As such, ‘Pneumo-encephalograph’ opens the ‘Ward Two’ sequence in a way that is sympathetic to both anti-psychiatry and psychiatry, showing that medicine’s tools can help produce a form of peace, but that this takes second precedence to the creative autonomy – and to some extent, madness – of the patient, who is producing the words of the poem.


The second poem of the ‘Ward Two’ sequence observes another patient, Harry, a person with Down syndrome who sits at a table in the ward to write a letter, a simple act of communication that is made difficult by the ward environment. He must ‘purloin’ paper, and ‘beg’ and ‘cadge’ the ‘bent institutional pen, / The ink’ (316). Even when overcoming these obstacles to write the letter, it is a ‘painstaking’ process and Harry’s clothing or ‘vestments’ represent all of the patients’ ‘giddy yarns of the firmament’ – suggesting scriptural reference such as the Genesis creation story – or disorienting stories of another life (316). Harry assumes a priest-like role, with the event likened to a ‘sacrament’, perhaps the Eucharist, in which the incarnate Christ is made bodily present in the here and now. The fact that the institutional pen is bent suggests that in this space of the psychiatric ward, language is warped, and their words are contorted by delusions, paranoia and mental disturbances. On the other hand, it could also mean that it is the psychiatric institution that bends their words, stories and speech, ventriloquising the subjects of the medical system. This is sympathetic to Laing’s idea that,

What we see sometimes in some people whom we label and treat as schizophrenics are the behavioural expressions of an experiential drama. But we see this drama in a distorted form that our therapeutic efforts tend to distort further. The outcome of this unfortunate dialectic is a forme frustre of a potentially natural process, that we do not allow to happen. (102)

Webb’s poem sympathises with Laing’s idea that the institution distorts the narrative and experience of the patient, but also implies that the narratives are already distorted from the illness, and that the medicine is a necessary intervention.

Griffith contends that Harry is ‘isolated from the corrupting obsessions of the modern world and especially from its “giddy alphabet”, with all that this implies of an erosion of the Word [Christ]’ (261). While Griffith argues that Harry is ‘isolated’ from language (261), and Ashcroft contends that he is ‘beyond’ language (177), I propose that Harry has access to a more exclusive language; in writing his letter he becomes a medium for a pure and transcendental spirit. Like the poet-speaker in ‘Pneumo-encephalograph’, and like Webb himself who wrote weekly letters from hospital, Harry is drawn to writing as a way of reconstructing and repairing the world around him. Invoking a goddess or muse to write the letter, Harry has a protective barrier that excludes the ‘giddy alphabet’, suggesting that the patients’ spoken language is characterised by dizziness, disorientation and naïve elation. Andrew Taylor ventures that Harry is indeed ‘clothed in language’, but that this is the language of the world outside the hospital, the patients’ stories of ‘women, gods, electric trains’, and their remaking or retelling ‘of all known worlds’ (110). The stories and conversations (‘yarns’) of others seep through to him; like a priest, he serves the people but communicates with the divine. This idea shares a parallel with Laing’s argument that ‘schizophrenics have more to teach psychiatrists about the inner world than psychiatrists their patients’ (90). In this way, Harry’s madness shares ideas with anti-psychiatry in that his limitations are also powers that liberate him, renew him, and allow him some form of transcendence.

In the fourth stanza, a female figure cries, ‘Ab aeterno ordinata sum’, meaning, ‘I am ordained by Eternity’, words that are spoken by Wisdom in Proverbs 8:23 (Ashcroft 180). This is a Marian reference, as well as a reference to Harry’s mother, to whom he is writing. The scriptural quotation is used in the Mass for the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, and Catholic exegetes read the Proverbs text as referring to Mary, identifying her with Wisdom. To the female figure of Wisdom, Harry writes the ‘One vowel and the thousand laborious serifs’ – ‘serifs’ punning on ‘seraphs’, and the vowel presumably an ‘I’ that is capped and limited by an excessive number of markings (316). In the process of communicating, Harry has reached metaphysical heights and has become an estranged Christlike symbol, ‘pudgy’ rather than the traditional, emaciated image. Yet another reading is that the ‘pudgy Christ’ symbolises Jesus as a baby, and as Ashcroft proffers, the ‘old shape’ of Mary may represent her pregnant shape (181). This reading positions Harry as a second coming of Christ child, a reading consistent with Ashcroft’s interpretation that ‘Harry’s status as “filled with the Word unwritten” refers to John 1 – “the Word was with God and the Word was God” – Christ incarnate’ (181–2). Like infant Jesus, he has virtue and wisdom, yet this is not yet expressible in words. Moreover, being ‘filled with the Word unwritten’ resonates with images in Ward Two of being full, loaded or charged, such as the image of a ‘spilled cruet of innocence’, a virus ‘eating its way … In a multitude of cozening wheedling voices’, and the way the rhyme scheme formally spills into the next stanza, figuratively full to the brim. The poetic form parallels Harry’s language in that they both emulate fullness, excess and abundance, but while the poem communicates its message, Harry’s letter is unheard by those in the physical world.

In ‘Harry’, Webb plays with the idea that suffering leads to spiritual rebirth and lets in light to some that is not visible to others, the ‘wise world (that) has forever and ever rejected / Him’ and the children who ‘scream at this sight / Of his mongol mouth stained with food’ (316–17). ‘Word’ and ‘House’ are capitalised, suggesting that the capitalised pronouns are used for reference to God and heaven. Mental illness is a social disability in that Harry is not heard or seen by others, but in spite of the impairment – or perhaps because of it – Harry assumes an enduring redemptive quality. For Webb, however, there is a self-conscious awareness that this shared humanity with the divine is romantic, and in the final lines where Harry sends the letter to ‘the House of no known address’, Webb recognises that although he appreciates that Harry’s letter holds some eternal power, it also goes unread and unappreciated by those in locatable domains (316–17). Although Webb shows instances of sympathy with anti-psychiatry throughout the sequence thus far, he ultimately reinforces the rational control of psychiatry by showing the limitations of the subjects’ communicative powers.

‘Old Timer’

In the third poem in ‘Ward Two’, ‘Old Timer’, the speaker describes voices and language in the ward around them as encroaching like a virus; it appears that psychiatric disabilities have become a linguistic pandemic. In the poem, this virus of language has a severe impact on the speaker’s consciousness and ‘being’, which is described, consequently, as ‘tender and succulent and porous’ (317). In an attempt to protect oneself against this encroachment of language, the speaker instructs the poem’s addressee – presumably the Old Timer – to erect ‘four paternal walls of stone’ (317). Ashcroft argues, ‘The erosion of identity which this “protection” involves is as much an attack on the system of hospital confinement as it is a philosophical consideration of human alienation’ (182). In other words, conditions in which the psychiatric patients are kept erode and perforate their identities, and the medical system erects barriers that reduce patients to automata. This is reminiscent of Laing’s comments that the schizophrenic comes to feel they are in an untenable position: ‘He cannot make a move, or make no move, without being beset by contradictory and paradoxical pressures and demands, pushes and pulls, both internally, from himself, and externally, from those around him. He is, as it were, in a position of checkmate’ (95). Webb sympathises with anti-psychiatric sentiments in that the four paternal walls render the patients automatic, but at the same time the command to erect the walls is a plea, reaching for and accepting the terms of the institution.

The walls that keep these voices out are personified as Gauleiters (Nazi officials) and so Webb continues the military metaphor from ‘Pneumo-encephalograph’, but these officials are defensive, attempting to keep language and meaning out: ‘Erect your four paternal walls of stone / (Gauleiters with burnished window-badges, no faces)’ (317). As Delmonte suggests, the patient is figured as a prisoner of the concentration camp of the hospital, which robs their identities and destroys the different individuals within, and ‘Webb is painstakingly aware of his impotence to rescue his identity’ (121). These walls are frightening and protective, a ‘checkmate’ or trap for the patients who are both dependent on and threatened by them. They block out all elements, extremes of weather and emotion, defeating and sedating them: ‘Checkmate the sun, the cloud, the burning, the raining’ (317). As in ‘Harry’, the walls in ‘Old Timer’ also create a ‘no man’s land’, where Webb uses defeated, mechanical monosyllables (‘Sit, feed, sleep, have done’) to suggest that the patients are merely going through the motions, not truly living (317). This is not purely anti-psychiatric in tone, however, as it is also a criticism of the illness and disability that has created this liminal space where the patients exist in an automatic state.

Like ‘Pneumo-encephalograph’, ‘Old Timer’ engages religious imagery and military imagery together, and in this case intertwines them to form a sophisticated image of living death. The second stanza begins with the image, ‘Isolate the identity, clasp its dwindling head’, a line that Ashcroft has read as an allusion to Pieta, the sculpture of Mary holding a dying Christ in her arms (182). Webb presents an image of a Christ-like birth – ‘Your birth was again the birth of the All’ – before subverting that and suddenly introducing military imagery of the enemy: he ‘treads roads, lumbers through pastures’ (317). In these lines, Webb goes from portraying the Old Timer as a Christlike figure who will bring salvation, to swiftly undercutting this with the idea that he will threaten the speaker’s safety and identity. This technique of rapidly switching from metaphor to metaphor has been noted by scholars such as Chris Wallace-Crabbe, who observed, ‘There is great speed and richness in [Webb’s] marshalling of inner and outer perceptions’ (qtd. in Delmonte vi-vii). In the instance of the switch from religious to military metaphors, Webb is fluctuating between paranoid and depressive thoughts about the man, to elevated, religious thoughts. There are feelings of repulsion and disgust to overcome in order to reach his eventual response of compassion and love.

This figure, the ‘he’, is said to muster ‘the squeaking horde of the countless dead’, invoking an image of a Christlike leader of those destined for languagelessness and spiritual death (317–8). Webb writes that for the addressed ‘you’ to ‘guard (his) spark’, or to defend their passion and creativity, they must ‘borrow the jungle art’ of hospital and government; but in another turn, Webb acknowledges that this dress code, referring in the text to their mundane uniformity, is ‘for your funeral’ (317–8). The assonant internal rhyme of ‘spark’, ‘art’, ‘yard’, ‘start’ and ‘heart’ imitates military marching, and these words – that are largely associated with ignition of the emotions – fall into a uniform timeliness and precision. Therein lies the conundrum of mental illness: guarding one’s inner madness or ‘spark’ prevents ‘old rages leaping in the dying heart’, and though this affords some protection, the patients become subdued through conformity and poor spiritual health (318). Perhaps it is in the face of strong medicine that patients attempt to guard their spark, and Webb acknowledges the extreme challenges faced by patients who are treated in the institution, and that small incidences of madness continue to rear up in the ‘dying heart’, in spite of their illness, pathology and treatment.

The speaker dreads the narratives of the Old Timer, trying to avoid his ‘pipe craving a fill … his monologue and rhyme’ (318). There is a touch of self-reflexivity here, as the poem itself is spoken in monologue and rhyme; and language (this time verbal) appears to have power over the speaker. Just as there is tension in the poetic language, with counterintuitive imagery such as ‘fatal vital’ and ‘silken and stony’ – imagery that is suggestive of both death and life – the Christlike Old Timer embodies a contradiction of suffering and glory (318). On this contradiction, Noel Rowe writes, ‘It is as if the poetry recognises that its belief in paradoxical suffering is effective only to the degree that its language itself suffers reality’ (100). It is therefore through language that the Old Timer is able to embody a paradox; through different points in the speaker’s utterance he is associated with the glorious qualities of Christ, or he is deserving of scathing pity. Webb’s speaker finds a grim reality in ‘Ward Two’, and resists this reality with redemptive language, endeavouring to see Christ in all of the personas within. Marilyn Jacobs reads the Enemy not as the patients’ internal demons but as the concept of time, arguing that the conflict between time and the self ‘is partially resolved by accepting the anonymity of the ward and adopting a camouflage in this war of survival’ (481). In other words, the Old Timer’s status as Christ or the Enemy – the faith healer or the snake – is determined in the speaker’s language, which is only ever anchored to an ephemeral moment. The irony is that the speaker’s mental state is also determined by time – whether their mood is elevated or depressed is contingent upon the moment – and submitting to the system begins to address this tension, but opens up other complications.

In this poem, Webb does not subscribe to the anti-psychiatric idea that madness is liberation and renewal (Laing 110), but does suggest that submitting to the institution and treatment is just as much a part of the disability as the illness itself. Submitting to the institution and treatment, in this case, involves subduing oneself and conforming to the system, and Webb suggests that disability involves a perpetual fight against conformity within both the inner society of the hospital and the broader society outside the hospital’s four walls.

‘Ward Two and the Kookaburra’

The fourth poem, ‘Ward Two and the Kookaburra’, is the first poem in the sequence that does not centre on an individual patient, but rather on the ward as a whole, with Delmonte describing it as a ‘mythological interval, which leads the reader into Webb’s symbolic and metaphoric inner world’ (122). Delmonte’s argument foregrounds the surreal, mythical and even absurd aspects of the poem which further ‘Ward Two’s’ symbol of the wall as personified and animistic, peeping at the ‘riff-raff of hunger and desire’ in the ward (318). Griffith argues that the stone wall of the psychiatric hospital ‘stands as a symbol for man’s fundamental indifference to the fate of his fellow man’, and that Webb’s intention is to ‘break down this wall’ – also a theme of Webb’s ‘The Canticle’ – through the empathy of the ‘Ward Two’ sequence (258-59). The wall is now an agent of the gaze, looking over to the patients, much as the ‘schooled and tall / Mountain or introvert desert might peep at a city’ (318). It peeps in at the ward’s ‘crude etude without art’, a ‘pandemonium of living’, which reverses the metaphor of ‘Pneumo-encephalograph’ where the hospital was a cabin of art (318). While psychiatry may be represented as an art, its personified walls look into the artless lives and disturbed mental states of the patients. Then there is some sensory reaction – ‘a shiver in the limbs of a eunuch pity’ – suggesting there is a visceral response to disability and the ineffectual pity it attracts (318).

In ‘Ward Two and the Kookaburra’, images of breakage and separation abound, with severed limbs and digits causing Webb’s speaker to reflect on his own state of mind and the disturbing, implosive nature of his psychology. When Ashcroft argues that a later poem in the sequence, ‘Homosexual’, displays ‘the full panoply of existential fears – engulfment, implosion, disembodiment – which haunt the schizophrenic’, the same could be said of this poem, where the world implodes: ‘Old voyageuse, dined on her continental crumb / And sea-sauce, and then portmanteau’d every trace / Of knick-knacks and a world’ (Ashcroft 78; Webb 319). The old moon appears to be inhaling or gathering up everything that exists within the world, so that there is nothing left. The speaker asks if ‘each of you somehow jerked ajar / the quantum portal, like a star / Erupting into sleep’s non-magnetic field?’ (319). Webb uses scientific terms to conjure an atmosphere of magical realism where the patients have opened another dimension during sleep, or a state of dreaming.

It is at this point in the poetic sequence that Webb brings the reader right inside the psychotic mind, with magical thinking and occurrences that are hallucinatory, surreal and bizarre. Just as patients oscillate between elation and despair, and between security and insecurity, the ward world is shaken by a kookaburra’s ‘lumbering ghost of laughter’ (319). There is an atmosphere of apocalypse where the ‘dregs / Of planets are drained’, and though this ‘shivers (the patients’) gold and copper grief’, there is also a sense of enlightenment: ‘History’s bowels roll for breakfast as history wakes’ (319). Discussing the image of the ‘Fixed Idea’, Ashcroft argues that ‘Fixed ideas can be a sign of the unimaginative, the limited consciousness, such as those which might occupy this ward’, and adds that ‘the capitalisation gives it an ironic significance’ (184). The ‘Fixed Idea’ may also represent Plato’s idea of the true and perfect form, or alternatively delusions that are in some ways highly imaginative, albeit difficult to challenge, and it is in these ideas that the patients’ ‘menial hands and trouser legs sweep’ (319). The limitations of mental illness are thus associated with limbs that conduct labour and physical errands, while the kookaburra’s head symbolises the mind’s manic response to these limitations.

In its mood of both despair and promise, the poem affirms the importance of psychiatry, but also defers to the anti-psychiatric idea that illness involves an illumination, or access to another realm. In subtly challenging the role of psychiatry and providing an insight into psychotic thinking, Webb ironically reinforces the need for the walls to be there. The poem ends with a disembodied head ‘Of obsessed ultimate Laughter in ascent’ that ‘Bulges into testament’, with the capitalisation of ‘Laughter’ and ‘Bulges’ adding to the manic and grandiose tone (319). For Jacobs, the kookaburra’s laughter is a ‘world-shaking event’ that rekindles a ‘reciprocal spark of defiance’, and I would add that it can symbolise resistance to the medical institution, the structures in society that led the patients to illness, or the disability itself (483). The final line returns to the patients, directing them to ‘Gape at your porridge, munch it like a god!’, a line that maintains an ecstatic tone, while its tragic irony reinforces the patients’ impotence (319).


The fifth poem, ‘Homosexual’, details the story of a gay, male patient who has been institutionalised due to mental illness. The gay person becomes the object of the patients’ gaze, but the speaker states that ‘To watch may be deadly’, and the ‘terror’ is that ‘the object becomes ourselves’, or that the speaker might assimilate the subject’s sexual tendencies (319–20). Delmonte argues that it is his homosexuality that ‘becomes his terror’, as the persona ‘is torn between two opposite poles: on the one side, he is aware of his deviation from the codes of society; on the other, this realization brings an element of terror in his self, terror of being the rebel, of being different’ (121). This fear of self and society seems to have led to a situation where the patients’ consciousness is split between thoughts of their own, and thoughts influenced by society, or ‘Popular magazines, digests, psychoanalysts’ (319–20). This division leads to another paradox, or state of living death – ‘we have simply ceased, are not dead’ – and Webb combines present and past tense to show a dialectic of existence and non-existence: the patients ‘have been and are’ (319–20). In a wider context, this says that the culture of the time suggested that people with disabilities are non-entities, even as they assert their ongoing existence and subjectivity. Webb’s speaker encourages the collective ‘we’ to stop judging the gay man – to ‘disentangle the disgust and indifference’, because the man’s movement has become synonymous with their movement. In hospital they have become social equals, but the institution has also homogenised their thoughts, language and actions. This could be read as Webb showing sympathies with anti-psychiatry in that the institution reduces the patients to unthinking automata; however, it is equally true that Webb is criticising the illness and disability itself, that it is the psychoses that turn them into the living dead. In this sense, madness is not liberation and renewal, in line with Laing’s idea, but madness is more likely to cause enslavement and existential death.

The second stanza suggests that the homosexual patient was born into ‘joy’ and ‘security’, a ‘lighted house’, as if he was born a blank, innocent slate. The boy grows, ‘Unselfconscious as the loveliest of flowers’, and it is at this point that the fellow society ‘enters’, with the man subject to homophobic violence in chilling images of ‘boots and footmarks’ (320). Judgements from society are represented by ‘pale glass faces’ who ‘contort in hate and merriment’ and participate in his humiliation, as well as the ‘words and arbitrary laws’ that come to ‘embody him’ (320). The passive phrase, ‘He is embodied’, shows that the gay man is figuratively constituted in the bigotries, hateful laws, and even the despair of the oppressors, although these take the form of one-dimensional and flimsy ‘pale glass’. Griffith reads the ‘pale glass faces’ as the ‘lifeless and loveless masks that society wears in order to protect the status quo’, and I would add that these symbols of faded fragility are shattered with the ‘first window broken’ (263). In this image, the supposedly deviant man ‘resists embodiment’, refusing to submit to the norm to the point where he is forcibly hospitalised in a place where minds are surrendered or ‘given over’ (319–20).

In the fifth stanza, the flashback to the homosexual coming out to his mother is associated with apocalyptic imagery and the destruction of a house, as ‘doors rattle’ and ‘foundations stagger’ (320–1). This notion of apocalypse, and an ending as opposed to a ‘Beginning’, is connected to a loss of language in both the mother and the gay man; around the mother is a ‘chaos of silence’, and he is ‘mulcted of words’ (320–1). The phrase ‘chaos of silence’ is almost an oxymoron, evoking a state where an absence of language or speech causes disorder and turbulence rather than peace and stillness. The stanza ends with an image of a moth pondering the gaslight, hovering between ‘love or death or both’, a metaphor for the homosexual man whose capacity for love is marred by the threat of violence or social ostracisation, even death.

In the latter half of the final stanza, Webb aligns the homosexual’s ‘ugliness and agony’ with Godlike leadership and virtue, as in this space, the other patients are not able to ‘contort our faces in merriment’, to use their language or speech to condemn the man (321). In fact, the homosexual man becomes the leader of the patients, king of the ‘Twelve Tribes’, and ‘dictates silence, a kind of peace’, commanding the ward to exist in a peaceful absence of language (321). According to Noel Rowe, in ‘Homosexual’, ‘we find Webb’s model offering a searching critique of conventional Catholicism, saying that the homosexual embodies Christ’s love more deeply than his virtuous judges do’ (122). As a persecuted and judged person, the gay man comes to represent Christ, and adopts the role of loving, accepting and leading all of the outcasts within the psychiatric ward. The damaging and bigoted language of society, represented in the dehumanised ‘pale glass faces’, is what condemns the man to psychiatric illness – or, at least, hospital – and it is this circulating language that causes deep pain for both the perpetrators and the oppressed. In this space, the other patients’ language is ‘given over’ to some higher order, and the gay man rises to become their ‘king’, dictating a languageless peace where they can all be safe in the ‘four unambiguous walls’ of the hospital (321). Webb represents Ward Two as a kind of utopia where the outcast in society, through their madness and difference, can come to embody a kind of elevated status and grandiose esteem, suggesting that though psychiatric disabilities may be debilitating, the hospital can be a space for them to experience spiritual renewal and social glory. This is a poem that celebrates difference and says that connection and community is necessary for disabled people to achieve – if not social glory – social and spiritual health, and harmony within one’s environment.

‘A Man’

Another patient, plainly designated as ‘A Man’, appears as the subject of the sixth poem in the ‘Ward Two’ sequence. The man’s physical, mental, and linguistic deterioration is manifest in the opening lines, as he ‘can hardly walk’, can hardly speak, is ‘faded from ancient solar festivities’, and is preoccupied with the ‘solid wall’ that demarcates ward life from the world outside (321–2). In the poem, the stanzas follow a repeated structure whereby the first three lines involve end-rhyme, the fourth line consistently ends with ‘solid wall’, and the final two lines offer an italicised refrain that speculates, ‘Away down, the roots, away down, / Who said Let there be light?’ (321–2). For Ashcroft, light ‘metaphorically traverses both ontology and epistemology, standing as the figure for both being and knowing, concepts of central importance in Webb’s poetry’ (Ashcroft 51). In asking who created light and the capacity to be and know, Webb’s refrain questions the existence and credibility of God in a place where pain and suffering are so potent. In doing so, Webb moves away from the anti-psychiatric idea that madness can involve liberation and renewal, and associates madness with anguish and spiritual doubt. Light is associated in the sequence with textuality, with the ‘dilute potage of light’ dripping onto the speaker’s desk in ‘Pneumo-encephalograph’ and with Harry’s letter resurrecting ‘the spontaneous though retarded and infantile light’. While God, Christ and the Holy Spirit have been key to the sequence thus far, Webb makes it clear in ‘A Man’ that God is now distant from the scenario in the ward. Significantly, the clock ‘holds at three o’clock and has always done’, frozen at the time of Christ’s death, so that the patients can never move to the moment of resurrection, but are suspended in a mortal moment (321–2).

In the third stanza, the dishevelled man squats ‘like a king’, trying to stabilise the ward wall by pulling out a ‘heavy chock’ from his photograph album and ‘niching’ it in so it is ‘almost part of solid wall’ (322). One reading is that the chock, drawn in grandiose manner from a place of nostalgia, is an attempt to repair the rent in his world; in other words, the chock draws upon memories from the past to open the ‘heavy lock’ that may lead to the outside realm. As someone who is ‘like’ or who approximates a ‘king’, the anonymous man may also represent a Christlike figure who is attempting salvation by breaking down barriers between outcasts and mainstream society.

In the fourth stanza, Webb creates an image of canaries that are ‘caged in laws’ but ‘silent as spiders’; they are incapable of language yet subject to it. These birds beg ‘a First Cause / That they may tear It open with their claws / And have It hanging in pain from solid wall’ (322). ‘First Cause’, in Christian readings of Aristotle, refers to God as creator, and so the birds are self-destructively begging for God, for the creator who brought about light and existence. I argue that the canaries represent the broader society who refuses to accept the delusional systems of the patients – just like the people refused to believe Christ was king – and in ripping this chock and lock from the wall, they persecute that which is good and restore themselves to pain and confusion. In the final three stanzas of ‘A Man’, emblems of the patient’s former life hurl themselves at the wall, representing the patient’s desire to be well again, and to destroy this symbol of institutionalisation and illness. For instance, the man’s ‘King’s cup for swimming’ and ‘the shimmering girl’ recall elements of a glamorous and successful life before illness took over, and a ‘photogenic light aircraft’ ineffectually hurls its ‘petty weight against a solid wall’ (322–3). Delmonte argues that the ‘motif of the vessel, the cup of the king, is reminiscent of the Holy Grail, a feminine symbol, holding Christ’s blood’, and I argue that Webb elevates a time before illness as a holy time – or, at least, a time before Christ’s blood was spilt (121).

The penultimate stanza introduces further images from the man’s photograph album, a metaphor for his cherished memories, including a ‘great goldfish’ that ‘hangs mouthing its glass box’, which ‘mocks / All that is cast in air or solid wall’ (322–3). According to Marilyn Jacobs, ‘returning to the encapsulated history of the “photograph album” restores his sense of identity and importantly allows an imaginative escape’, a ‘simple act of keeping the past alive’ (487). As the man remembers his past, the gap that connects realms of madness and wellness are blocked, then repaired, blending memories of wellness with the illness he currently suffers. Mocking ‘all that is cast in air or solid wall’, this particular relic of wellness undermines all that is in a state of permanence, or that is categorised by definitions and boundaries. In spite of their fixed status as the mentally ill, the final stanza shows the resilience of the patient’s memories with the cup ‘glittering’, a subtle gesture to Christ’s ultimate glory. The ‘light monoplane bucks’, and ‘girls in panel trucks / Arrive like flowers’, an image that is both funereal and celebratory, and which resonates with the sexual confidence of the gay patient, who once grew ‘Unselfconscious as the loveliest of flowers’ (322–3).

In the final image of the man sighing deeply and puffing into flesh behind ‘solid wall’, Webb presents a moment of exasperated resignation, and the man stays in the hospital yard – no ascent to heaven – and the final refrain returns readers to spiritual doubt, asserting that God is here, but is hard to find. In doing so, Webb undermines his former poems’ suggestions that madness can involve spiritual renewal, though in associating this state of mental wretchedness with Good Friday, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, Webb also foreshadows that though the disability involves a form of spiritual death, there is potential for rebirth.

‘The Old Women’

In the penultimate poem, ‘The Old Women’, visitors enter Ward Two, disembarking from ‘age and weight and sex’ as the hospital is a place where gravity ‘pauses’, where the figurative suspension of one’s body emulates the suspension of their identity (325). Ashcroft notes, ‘The women disembark from everything that is real and tangible, everything that is measurable and definable, and enter a world that is incalculable’ (187). The abcabc rhymes in each stanza create a loop, or even an ‘orbit’, echoing the image of the women floating about, subject in the hospital to an ‘earlier law’ of gravity. This loop is consistently disrupted by the couplet at the end of each stanza, which soberly and heavily dwell on the patients’ plight: ‘Son, husband, lover, have spun out of orbit; this place / Holds the fugitive vessel to be kissed; and the rest is space’ (325). As they wait in the visitors’ room, men enter their atmosphere like ‘meteorites’, debris of outer space, or an object that crumbles and diminishes the closer it gets to the women. In this encounter, where the women use ‘bombastic’ language, there is a ‘wake of fire’, and so the patients become meteors or falling stars, experiencing a moment of ‘joy’ before being reduced to ‘nothing’ (325). The male patients are in an unusual predicament where the presence of the old women cannot draw them back into ‘earth’s orbit’ – or mainstream society – and while the women will continue to circulate and tread the same path, the male patients are hurtling towards wreckage and dissolution.

At the end of the second stanza and into the third, Webb introduces a pastoral conceit; not only are the patients floating about in the galaxy, they are doing so as ‘grazing herds of space’ (325). In this way, Webb absurdly entwines a metaphor of outer space with a pastoral metaphor, and in doing so illustrates a paradox of the patients’ state. Like cattle, they are grounded and confined within the hospital, but like celestial objects, they are unloosed upon outer space, drifting about in a lost state of mind. Apparently mute, passive and dehumanised, the patients ‘lift their heads’, ‘chew’ and ‘swish’, but never engage in speech, rather tolerating the ‘bombast’, ‘repartee’ and ‘patois’ of the older women (325). The gentle insistence of the word ‘space’ as the ending to each stanza has a double meaning: it refers to outer galaxies and solar systems, but it also refers to a condition of emptiness or nothingness. The spacing of the stanza breaks after the word ‘space’ reflects the feeling of suspension, of losing touch with language and with the world of the sane. By ending each stanza with this word, Webb hints that the men will continue to hurtle out of orbit, and in spite of being clustered in languageless ‘herds’, they will remain isolated and adrift.

It seems that the ancient alliance or ‘entente’ between earth and space, or the men and the women, is at risk of displacement by ‘his midget mother tumbling in metre’, an alliterative line that playfully invokes an image of an old woman losing her balance in physical space, but also in the poetic verse (325). Marilyn Jacobs argues that this disruption amounts to a war between the sexes:

The lost interaction between male and female serves as a reminder to those who would see this performance as a reflection of life but Webb’s choice of imagery suggests a ‘war’ between the sexes and this section of the poem is sustained by the conflict between an appalled response to the ‘The Old Women’ and his central themes; he must admit their contribution to continued life. (489)

My interpretation is that the war is not so much between the men and the women, but between the hospital and the society that the women represent, and that Webb suggests that any harmony between these two worlds is threatened by the visitors’ trivial and incessant language but also by the poetic verse of the speaker who writes about them.

The imagery constructs both the patients and visitors as emitting light, but it is the ‘spark’ of the women that, in the final stanza, ‘blows open the infinite’, stretching the ‘train of time’ and disclosing the patients’ galaxies. Toby Davidson argues that Webb’s

Look on these faces … is a triple imperative, directed to the women to look at their loved ones’ faces, to those on the inside to look at the faces of the women, and to the readers outside and beyond to look at the faces captured in the poem, to look at these hidden, sunken faces of love behind the façade of the institution’ (Master 57).

In acknowledging that darkness ‘was always and must be always the stuff of light’, Webb blurs binaries of light and dark, and health and illness, and suggests that health, truth and sanity can only exist alongside illusions and mental illness. In the final lines of the poem, Webb contends that the madness or ‘decrepit persistent folly in this place / Will sow with itself the last paddock of space’ (326). As such, Webb ends ‘The Old Women’ on a note of ambiguity, where it could be either the visitors or the patients that represent the folly, an irrationality that multiplies and implants itself in the ward, the only remaining space where identities can be suspended. In this way Webb does not deny illness in line with anti-psychiatry, nor does he condemn or pathologise illness as psychiatry can, but rather suggests that these disabilities entail both lightness and darkness, and he satirises the pity, paternalism and stigma that is represented in the tone of ‘The Old Women’.

In paying attention to the patients’ experience of the female visitors, Webb concurs with anti-psychiatrists such as Laing, who complains that ‘Psychiatrists have paid very little attention to the experience of the patient’ (57). In using humour and caricature to paint the visitors as ridiculous, Webb valorises the perspectives of the patients, seeing their views as not delusional, unreal or invalid, but insightful, incisive and as having comic potential. In doing so, Webb presents a view of disability that does not exclude their voice and perspective, but rather privileges it and incorporates their bizarre and magical thinking into a legitimate and visible viewpoint.

‘Wild Honey’

The eighth and final poem in the ‘Ward Two’ sequence, ‘Wild Honey’, adopts a rhyme scheme of abcabcdd, the same pattern employed in ‘The Old Women’. However, while the rhymes in ‘The Old Women’ seem to caricature the female visitors, the abcabc rhymes in ‘Wild Honey’ allow for bittersweet reflection on the mental condition of the patients, who go outside to take part in Sports Day. Patients are described as ‘drones, fated for the hundred stings’, invoking the image of unfortunate subjects who speak with flat affect or tone, and symbolising the bee that does not sting or gather pollen, but whose primary role is to mate with a fertile queen (326). Drone bees die or are ejected from the hive in late spring, just as the autumn revolution becomes a metaphor for the patients’ exile from society and, on sports day, the physical confines of the psychiatric ward.

In his analysis of ‘Wild Honey’, Toby Davidson argues that the extensive honey imagery, along with the biblical references, maintains a ‘transcendent reciprocity’ between ‘the erotic and ascetic’: ‘The erotic inspires a wordless via negativa towards ascent and origin, whereas the ascetic joins the erotic to the divine eros of return to union at the search’s end’ (Mysticism 148–49). As Davidson suggests, the erotic element invokes a longing for God or a higher being and a desire to find the source of life – to locate the honey or the queen bee – but this is balanced by the ascetic elements in the poem. The patients of Ward Two are involved in a futile erotic search and quest – for sexual fulfilment and for the unattainable search for sanity (and God) – but this quest is frustrated and they are doomed to suffer the ‘hundred stings’ and dwell in their ‘chilly combs of self-contemplation’ (326). Perhaps this search is frustrated and fulfilment stymied because they are limited by both the illnesses and their treatments, and their access to transcendence is barred by depression, mania, psychosis, institutionalisation and medication. Here, the patients also appear to be plagued by self-doubt and it is this doubt that prevents them reaching sexual fulfilment, sanity, or some form of religious transcendence. At this point in the poem, madness is not synonymous with renewal or liberation, but disability and exile, with the drone patients subject to spiritual gloom and existential death.

The drones return to the outside world on Sports Day – ‘We are the Spring’ – though there is a hint of trauma symbolised by the ‘residue / Of days spent nursing some drugged comatose pain, / Summer, autumn, winter the single sheet of rain’ (326). Homogenising all seasons into one drab experience, Webb emphasises that for these patient-drones, rejection from society is the norm, and that pain and hospitalisation persists through all seasons. Patients feel and release intense emotions – ‘Joy, pain, desire, a moment ago set free’ – but just as all seasons are ‘crammed into pockets of the grey’, the emotions ‘Sag in pavilions of the grey finality’; after they are felt deeply, they are reduced to a subdued, monochrome state (327). Delmonte argues that Webb’s reintroduction of grey imagery has a cathartic function, and that it will gradually be substituted by the ‘golden’ colour of the girl’s hair, which is an embodiment of spring (127). Though it has this cathartic function, it is also an alarming image of dissolution of the world and self, and Webb invokes greyness as an ambivalent symbol of relief and despair.

Amid the speaker’s grey stare, and the world that has descended into greyness, the girl combs her hair – a pun on honeycombs and hair combs – instigating the ‘golden sweetness trickling’ (327). Looking into a ‘grey broken mirror’, the girl does not see herself as a queen or an embodiment of goodness, but rather sees fractures and gloom, while the patient perceives the figurative creation of honey (327). The girl with the golden hair represents the queen bee that the patient-drone seeks to mate with; more than an unattainable sexual object, she represents the unattainable condition of sanity and sublime spirituality. Ashcroft argues that the girl combing her hair is a moment of ‘spontaneous revelation’, and I would add that gold imagery has been consistent in the sequence with notions of the sacred, holy and religious (39). It appears that the ‘grey stare’, the voyeuristic gaze that has been a feature of all of the ‘Ward Two’ poems, creates an effect of ‘rainlike’ terror upon the girl, and the despair of the gazing patient compromises the girl’s goldenness, dwarfing and diminishing her glow (327).

The place where Sports Day takes place is associated with a temporary Eden, free from the perils of the mind (‘Down with the mind a moment’) and free from any corrupting influences of sexuality (‘let Eden Be fullness without the prompted unnatural hunger’) (327). For Andrew Taylor, ‘Wild Honey’ privileges the mental hospital as the sanctuary of innocence, yet this is an Edenic innocence that is lost with ‘thought’ (109). The girl plays easily and casually with mortality, ‘the overcoated concierge of death’ which becomes ‘a toy for her gesture’ (327). In this way the girl becomes the queen bee, who can sting multiple times and survive, and who attracts and mates with approximately ten to twenty different drones, who will die during the process because their appendages are ripped out. Persisting through ‘Fall and landslip’, the girl’s hands are like bees, ‘storing golden combs among certified hollow trees’, or figuratively nourishing those certified insane (327). In the charged gaze, the patient-drone metaphorically mates with the girl-queen which causes the ‘gates of death’ to ‘scrape open’, and thought and mood culminate in an ecstatic and nostalgic rise to heaven: ‘Shall ascent / Be a travelling homeward, pat the blue frosty feet / Of winter, past childhood, past the grey snake, the will?’ (327). The final three lines of the sequence depict the girl and her ‘combing’ gesture as ‘stars in sacred dishevelment’, invoking the manic tendency to see deep spiritual meaning in everyday occurrences, but also the depressive tendency to romanticise an act that symbolises death (327). In the final couplet – ‘The tiny, the pitiable, meaningless and rare / As a girl beleaguered by rain, and her yellow hair?’ – Webb’s speaker has accessed a moment of wellness, where small gestures are not inflated by psychosis. At the sequence end, the speaker experiences symbolic death and is rebirthed into a world where he is grounded and lucid, but can find wonderment and pleasure in everyday occurrences (327).

The ending of the final poem in the ‘Ward Two’ sequence therefore strikes an ambivalent tone where madness has led to a position of liberation and renewal, though it has done this through the process of enslavement and existential death. Webb therefore suggests that psychiatry is a necessary system to contain the perils and assaults of mental illness, but that mental illness as a disability has some value in allowing the subject to progress to a new form of spiritual wellbeing.


Webb’s ‘Ward Two’ apprehends mental health disabilities in a way that does not put sufferers on a pedestal, nor evaluate them as having some inherent defect. It does not impel towards judgement or resolution, but incorporates complexities of mood, thought and experience as representative of a fluid, heterogeneous subjectivity. The psychiatric ward wall symbolises a barrier between the healthy and the mentally ill, and although Webb’s poetic language places emphasis on this wall, the compassionate empathy of his poetry seeks to erode and diminish such barriers. Another source of tension in the sequence is in Webb’s sophisticated mixing of metaphors; in some poems he combines religious and military imagery to illustrate that the patients are stripped of their identities in their loss of language, yet this process also allows them to attain a deep sense of virtue and holiness in his view of them. Often, good and holy perceptions overcome dulled, fearful or despairing first impressions. Elsewhere, Webb mixes metaphors of the pastoral and of outer space to show that though the patients are physically bound to the ward, they are mentally adrift in some cosmic splendour. Aside from metaphor, the lyric form shapes ideas about mental illness and its effect on the poetic subject. Couplets emulate the theme of united opposites and suggest that conflict can evolve to a deeper stage of harmony, insight or understanding.

For the patients, a relationship with language also involves a relationship with the Christian Word, in which the subject is transfigured yet strives for a condition of non-existence. For Webb, psychiatry can torment and also seemingly help to create a space of spiritual illumination, but this space is isolated from the outside world and sometimes even from other patients. While it was an open and porous subjectivity that made the subject vulnerable to illness, it is the same complex openness that allows him to finally experience a form of spiritual death, and then look around with renewed composure and lucidity. The sound and imagery of Webb’s ‘Ward Two’ allow a nuance that does not indict psychiatry, nor support anti-psychiatry, but rather humanises the patients themselves and empathises with their vacillations of thought and mood, their shared and individual pain, humility and spirituality.

Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Australian poetry, Disabled writers, Schizophrenia.

Cite as: Lin, Amy . ‘‘Doomed shapely ersatz thought’: Francis Webb, Ward Two and the Language of Schizophrenia.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.acf99816ec.