Perhaps the Greatest Anonymous Poem in English: “Tom O’Bedlam”

This is an anonymous lyric, discovered in a commonplace book of about 1620. Following the poem are some notes by critic Harold Bloom. Poem and notes are copied from his excellent book How To Read and Why.

Tom O’Bedlam

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
The spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moons defend ye,
That of your five sound senses,
You never be forsaken,
Nor wander from yourselves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon,

While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enragèd,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly cagèd
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong>, sweet whips ding dong                            [ handcuffs ]
With wholesome hunger plenty,

And now I sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

With a thought I took for Maudlin>                         [ Magdalene or prostitute ]
And a cruse of cockle pottage>,                                 [ pot of weed stew ]
With a thing thus tall, sky bless you all,
I befell into this dotage.
I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never wakèd,
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stripped me naked.

And now I sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

When I short have shorn my sow’s face
And swigged by horny barrel>,                                                [ leather flask ]
In an oaken inn I pound my skin
As a suit of gilt apparel;
The moon’s my constant mistress
And the lonely owl my marrow>;                                              [ mate ]
The flaming drake> and the night crow> make                  [ dragon / owl ]
Me music to my sorrow.

While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The palsy> plagues my pulses                                      [ paralysis/tremors ]
When I prig> your pigs or pullen>,                                 [ steal, chicken ]
Your culvers> take, or matchless make                                      [ doves ]
Your Chanticleer or Sullen>.                                                  [ rooster ]
When I want provant> with Humphrey                              [ food ]
I sup, and when benighted,
I repose in Paul’s> with waking souls                         St. Paul’s Churchyard ]
Yet never am affrighted.

But I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at bloody wars
In the wounded welkin weeping;
The moon embrace her shepherd,
And the Queen of Love her warrior,
While the first doth horn the star of morn,
And the next the heavenly Farrier>.                                                Vulcan ]

While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The gypsies, Snap and Pedro,
Are none of Tom’s comradoes,
The punk> I scorn and the cutpurse> sworn,                            whore / pickpocket ]
And the roaring boy’s> bravadoes.                                   [ street gangster ]
The meek, the white, the gentle
Me handle, touch, and spare not;
But those that cross Tom Rynosseross
Do what the panther dare not.

Although I sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

With an host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to a tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end:
Methinks it is no journey.

Yet I will sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

*             *            *

Harold Bloom’s Notes

“Tom O’Bedlam” is one of a number of “mad songs,” though nothing else in the genre compares to it, not even the “Mad Song” of William Blake. Try chanting the poem aloud, repeatedly. Its surging power is deeply energizing for the attentive reader, and I strongly recommend the poem for memorization. The singer, supposedly a former inmate of Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital, London), begs by protesting his harmlessness, tells a version of his personal history, and finally expresses a visionary perspective only rarely achieved in poetic history. I know few other poems that open with the speed, directness, and dramatic intensity of Tom O’Bedlam’s song:

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
The spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moons defend ye,
That of your five sound senses,
You never be forsaken,
Nor wander from yourselves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon,

While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The Book of Moons probably was a work of popular astrology, as current then as now, and the naked man might be Hermes, a frequent figure in such handbooks. Rent into rags by his madness, which he interprets as a spell put upon him by hag or goblin, Tom yet invokes the visionary protection for us, his auditors, of the Hermetic naked man. The function of his song, for the reader, is to ward off madness, the condition described, with bitter irony, in the second stanza, with its memories of “the lordly lofts of Bedlam”: handcuffs, whippings, near-starvation.

Whether the erotic element in Tom’s “dotage” is imaginary or not, we cannot know, though for him it has become another vision: “With a thought I took for Maudlin” refers either to a particular Magdalene or prostitute, or to all womankind, but either way a pure phantasmagoria has prevailed in him:

I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never wakèd,
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stripped me naked.

A victim of Cupid, though of no certain time or place, from the Norman Conquest of 1066 onwards, Tom sings of an eternal Romanticism, as little trapped in a particular era as was Shakespeare:

The moon’s my constant mistress
And the lonely owl my marrow;
The flaming drake and the night crow make
Me music to my sorrow.

One can think of many Shakespearean plays where this could be sung and be altogether worthy of the context. The owl, or “night crow,” is mated to Tom by the illumination of the meteor, the “flaming drake,” ad yet the moon remains the Bedlamite’s “constant mistress,” emblem of an unattainable love. Mixed in with the pathos of Tom’s hungry life are moments of pure vision, Shakespearean and prophetic of Blake and Shelley:

I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at bloody wars
In the wounded welkin weeping;
The moon embrace her shepherd,
And the Queen of Love her warrior…

To know more than the sleeping sun god, Apollo, is also to know more than the rational. Tom looks up at the night sky of falling stars (“wounded welkin weeping”) and contrasts these battles to the embraces of the moon, Diana, with her shepherd-lover Endymion, and of the planet Venus with her warrior, Mars. A mythological poet, Mad Tom is also a master of intricate images: the crescent moon enfolds the morning star within the crescent horns, while the Farrier, Vulcan, husband of Venus, is horned in quite another sense, being cuckolded by the lustful Mars. Once these allusions are absorbed, the stanza is magical in its effect, adding strangeness to beauty, a High Romantic formula that the anonymous poet of “Tom O’Bedlam” seems to have learned from Shakespeare. I think I hear Shakespeare himself in the extraordinary transitions of the next stanza, in the sudden tonal drop into tenderness in the fifth and sixth lines, followed by the defiant roar of line seven and eight:

The gypsies, Snap and Pedro,
Are none of Tom’s comradoes,
The punk I scorn and the cutpurse sworn,
And the roaring boy’s bravadoes.
The meek, the white, the gentle
Me handle, touch, and spare not;
But those that cross Tom Rynosseross
Do what the panther dare not.

There is a marvelous pathos in “The meek, the white, the gentle / Me handle, touch, and spare not.”

The poet of “Tom O’Bedlam” attains a visionary height in the brilliant final stanza, suggestive of Cervantes as well as Shakespeare. I can think of nothing else in the language where the spirits of Don Quixote and of Hamlet seem to meld:

With an host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to a tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end
Methinks it is no journey.

This proudly self-conscious closure is a touchstone for poetic quality. Hamlet, summoned to revenge by “a knight of ghosts and shadows,” would have preferred a Quixotic tourney, “Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end.” Death, to Hamlet, was that undiscovered country from whose bourn, or limit, no traveler returned. With mad Tom, Hamlet might have said of a more visionary summons: “Methinks it is no journey.”

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About Kestrel Slocombe

I like writing, meditation, art, reading, riding horses, playing guitar, watching trees in the wind, ferns, the smell of woodsmoke, Mozart and Bach, long walks in the wilderness, and the sound of the cello.
This entry was posted in Art, Intellectual Life, Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Perhaps the Greatest Anonymous Poem in English: “Tom O’Bedlam”

  1. Sherril says:

    Brilliant, Kestral!

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