There was never any such person as the “Tom O’ Bedlam Poet,” never
any one writer whose name we’ve lost to time, like the “Pearl Poet” or “Gawain Poet.” But I’m here to tell you: he exists. Call it my own cutesy conceit, but I say that behind the character of Tom O’ Bedlam, that lunatic who peppers the entire history of poetry in English, lies a mysterious but identifiable intelligence. When Tom the character surfaces, whether in anonymous poems or those by famous authors, Tom the poet tends to pop up as well.
One appearance comes in King Lear. Edgar, the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, has been banished, thanks to his half-brother’s deceit. Roaming the heath, he adopts a disguise:
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb’d and mortified arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometimes with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.
What happens when Edgar impersonates poor Tom? His speech itself becomes host to an ingenious force, as if a crazed but fluent shadow-self gushed from his mouth. Here’s part of the rant he delivers when he meets Lear:
Who gives any thing to poor Tom? whom the
foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame,
through [ford] and whirlpool o’er bog and quagmire;
that hath laid knives under his pillow, and halters in
his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him
proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting-horse over
four-inch’d bridges, to course his own shadow for a
If Edgar performs instead of experiences madness, nevertheless, he not only finds strange possibilities in his role, but also becomes thrall to that role. Mad Tom has possessed Edgar — as if flipping some inscrutable, neural toggle switch — in order to speak through him. There’s no other explanation. Up until his transformation, Edgar’s lines have been virtuous, dutiful, and dull. Nothing has suggested he even has the potential for such spontaneous flights as that wild list of imaginary threats, with its alliterative parody of Old English verse and its hallucinatory image of a horse galloping across “four-inch’d bridges.”
Yes, you could argue that Edgar has been possessed not by Tom O’ Bedlam but by William Shakespeare. But how then to explain Tom’s curious survival across the centuries?
Of the anonymous poems written in his voice, from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the greatest remains the poem collected by Thomas D’Urfey in the 1720 edition of his Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge Melancholy. I was introduced to this poem in a class taught by Derek Walcott — who, in fact, has invoked Mad Tom both in his epic Omeros and in several beautiful moments from The Bounty. Walcott had us memorize the whole poem. The grayer areas of my gray matter have spread over the years, but I’m grateful to have in my memory these eight lines, in which Tom brags about his astrological savvy:
I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
I behold the stars at mortal 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 the morn,
And the next the heavenly Farrier.
These lines are a marvel of compression. The three words “wounded welkin weeping,” for example, capture the exact image of stars smearing the night sky, even while conveying Tom’s own predicament — the affliction of feeling too much meaning, too much belief. And this ornate tangle of visual detail and psychology carries over into the following lines with their intricate parallelism about celestial adulteries.
Who wrote these lines? Was it D’Urfey himself? Some collection of unknown English speakers, each leaving his or her touches on the composite poem? If I choose to call this mystery author the Tom O’ Bedlam poet, that’s because the figure of Mad Tom works to question our notions not about madness — actual mad speech, in my experience, tends to be tedious and predictable — but about the mad way that we are possessed by language even as we endeavor to possess and shape it.
I mean that Tom O’ Bedlam is a figure for one of the most vital elements of authorship. We don’t have a word in English for this element. But if you imagine feeling utter humility (the naked madman staring at the “the wounded welkin weeping”) and complete arrogance (the naked madman proclaiming “I know more than Apollo”) at the same time, you’ll get part way to understanding. In the meantime, we can approximate by simply saying “wonder.”