Friday, July 19, 2013

`An Instance of This Deplorable Merriment'

The lunatic asylum now known as the Bethlem Royal Hospital was founded as a priory in London in 1247, during the reign of Henry III. Since 1403 it has served as a madhouse, a place where the mentally ill have been treated or at least confined. From its name, earlier the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, we get bedlam. Like all good, useful words it has mutated. The Oxford English Dictionary gives eleven alternate spellings across almost eight-hundred years, and seven definitions. The most common usage today is probably the fourth, one that almost cancels its roots in insanity: “A scene of mad confusion or uproar.” That is, a mosh pit or a kindergarten class. In his Anatomy of Melancholy (1620), Robert Burton deploys the word in a sense closer to its unhappy origins: “Such raging Bedlams as are tied in chaines.” In the eighteenth century, for the cost of two pence, one could visit the hospital. On this date, July 19, in 1784, William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote to his friend the Rev. John Newton: 

“In those days when Bedlam was open to the cruel curiosity of holiday ramblers, I have been a visitor there. Though a boy, I was not altogether insensible of the misery of the poor captives, nor destitute of feeling for them. But the Madness of some of them had such a humorous air, and displayed itself in so many whimsical freaks, that it was impossible not to be entertained, at the same time that I was angry with myself for being so. A line of Bourne’s is very expressive of the spectacle which this world exhibits, tragic-comical as the incidents of it are, absurd in themselves, but terrible in their consequences; 

“Sunt res humanae flebile ludibrium. [Human affairs are a joke to be wept over.] 

“An instance of this deplorable merriment has occurred in the course of the last week in Olney. A feast gave the occasion to a catastrophe truly shocking.” 

A month later, on Aug. 14, Cowper refers elliptically to the “catastrophe” in a letter to the Rev. William Unwin: “Some neighbours of ours, about a fortnight since, made an excursion only to a neighbouring village, and brought home with them fractured sculls [sic] and broken limbs, and one of them is dead.” No further explanation. 

What’s striking in the July 19 letter is Cowper’s frankness. He was no stranger to the madhouse himself, but admits to finding the behavior of the inmates “humorous.” It was “impossible not to be entertained,” and yet he felt guilty about the pleasure he took in their madness. “Bourne” is Vincent Bourne (1695-1747), once Cowper’s teacher, a classicist who wrote poetry in Latin and English, and was much admired by Charles Lamb. The Latin line neatly distills Cowper’s vision, at once anguished and comic. In “Hatred and Vengeance, My Eternal Portion” (also known as "Lines Written During a Fit of Insanity") he writes:  

“Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors,
I’m called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
                           Worse than Abiram’s.” 

In Numbers, Chapter 16, Abiram leads a revolt against Moses and is punished by being swallowed by the earth.

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