Hospital Window Summary


The strength of James Dickey’s poetry lies in this southern writer’s ability to turn a commonplace event into a moment of personal transcendence. His poems never simply lie flat on a page; instead, they shout with intense—sometimes shocking—imagery and action. Dickey’s poems and his novels (most notably Deliverance, which became a major film in 1973) often present common people doing common things. But there is always a twist or a rise to an unexpected level that moves the persona and the themes into a realm far beyond what the simple action may imply.

In “The Hospital Window,” the speaker has been visiting his gravely ill father in the hospital, and, as he leaves the building, he turns to wave toward the window that he believes is in his father’s room. This is something that anyone might do in a similar situation. Once outside, however, the son experiences a rapturous moment of true understanding—both of his father’s impending death and of his own resignation to mortality. So strong is this sudden transcendence beyond grief and pain that he stands in the middle of the street continuing to wave while traffic backs up and angry drivers begin blowing their horns. Even the honking horns become a part of the speaker’s rising spirit and sense of euphoria, and he incorporates them into his dreamlike state, imagining that the loud noises can “blow down the walls of the world” and set the souls of the dying free. In this poem, the hospital window is much more than a pane of glass, and Dickey once again manages to turn a simple gesture into personal revelation.

Hospital Window Summary

Line 1: The first line in “The Hospital Window” may be singled out for attention because it is used for both the beginning and the ending of the poem. The fact that the same line opens and closes this work gives it a circular motion, one that is very apt in a poem addressing living and dying, father and son, and the sense of roundness in human life—“ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” so to speak. Literally, the speaker simply means he has just returned to street level after visiting his ill father on the sixth floor of the hospital. However, the son has also just “come down” from his father in the metaphorical sense, for he believes the dying man is starting to ascend into the heavens, far out of range of being reached.

Lines 2–6: The lines that make up the rest of the first stanza introduce color and light into the poem, references that will be repeated throughout. The father lies “higher and higher” above the speaker, indicating a movement upward, and he appears to be ascending in a blue light, perhaps implying a soul floating through the sky. There is a mixture of the physical and the metaphysical in this stanza. Even though the words “higher” and “blue” may be used as metaphors, the last three lines simply tell the reader that the windows of the hospital are tinted blue and that the speaker has taken an elevator down six floors to reach the pavement. The language the poet uses, however, implies something more than a simple elevator ride, for the speaker claims to “drop” through the floors, and the floors are “white.” It is as though the son has fallen from the purity and the sterility that surround the dying as they transcend earthly matters and physical objects.

Lines 7–10: Line seven continues the son’s perception of his father’s movement toward heaven, or his drawing closer to death. Not only is there a sense of the dying man’s upward motion, but the poem itself seems to ascend as well. This will become clearer as the speaker moves readers through his physical actions and his emotions as they rise toward the final stanza. He emphasizes his father’s light, ethereal existence by contrasting it to his own on the “firm street.” But as he crosses the roadway, he feels his “shoulder blades shining with all / the glass the huge building can raise.” Here, an obvious question may be, why shoulder blades as opposed to just shoulders or back or head? The reason is most likely that shoulder blades imply angel imagery, for the wings of angels are depicted as attached to what would be human shoulder blades. With this description, Dickey continues to mix reality and metaphor, as well as compare the “concrete” world of the living to the spiritual, divine presence of those near death. While the realistic indication is that the speaker can feel sunlight reflecting as heat on his back as he crosses the street, the angel imagery implies an otherworldly essence to the bright day.

Lines 11–12: These two lines are rich with double meaning. On one hand—the literal hand—the speaker is saying that, as he crosses the street, he knows he is obligated to turn around and wave toward a win- dow of the hospital that is in the vicinity of his father’s room. It is a gesture of both love and duty, even though the son realizes that all the windows look alike, and chances are he cannot locate the exact one. Figuratively, though, there is much more going on. The word “must” is very strong, indicating a greater urge than dutiful obligation. Instead, the speaker is compelled to turn around, whether by his own accord or by some force that lies beyond him. The phrase “face it” refers to looking at the hospital, or “huge building” as described in the previous line, but “it” may be a much greater, more difficult object to face than a building. What the son must also turn around and face is his father’s death and the fact that the ill parent will never emerge alive from the hospital that looms so large in his son’s vision.

The twelfth line means, literally, that the son must find his father’s window out of all the others, but the key word in the line is “pane.” Spelled as is, it refers to a sheet of glass, or simply the hospital window, but, spelled pain, the meaning is just as valid and even more revealing. The speaker needs to attempt to separate his father’s pain from all that is suffered by hundreds of other patients. But he understands that this endeavor is just as futile as trying to pinpoint one single window on the sixth floor out of all the others on the building’s façade.

Lines 13–15: The sun’s reflection on windows is a common sight, but the windows in Dickey’s poem are exceptional for each one “possesses the sun.” This strong verb is in keeping with the poem’s rising passion, a fervor that is echoed in much of the language and emotion. The windows also play a prominent role in the imagery of whiteness and light that runs throughout the poem, acting as vehicles that reflect purity and allow transcendence to occur. The sun is like a candle flame for it seems to burn “on a wick” in each pane of glass. Line 15 is arguably the most vital one in the poem, for it marks the beginning of the revelation that the speaker will experience later on, and it indicates his first wave toward his father. But it is not just an ordinary wave, for he does it “like a man catching fire”—a simile reflecting the speaker’s urgency, passion, and need. Note that he doesn’t wave like a man on fire—which may connote pain or hopelessness— but like a man catching fire, a phrase that is used to describe something exciting, finally getting underway.

Lines 16–18: These lines continue the flame-in-the-window metaphor, as well as the references to color. The windowpanes are “deep-dyed” with their blue tint and they “flash” with the sun’s reflection. Behind the windows, all the hospital rooms are white, but they begin to “turn to the color of Heaven.” The color of heaven, in this case, is blue, like the skies above, and the white walls of the rooms appear to turn azure as the sunlight falls upon them through blue-tinted windows. Physically, these concepts are accurate—hospital rooms are typically white and colored glass makes other objects appear colored when light passes through it. But, figuratively, the white rooms turn to the color of heaven because many of the ill people within them are closer to dying.

Lines 19–21: The three adverbs that make up line nineteen (along with the conjunction “and”)...

(The entire section is 2699 words.)