‘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…

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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.