Darlene's Hospital

by John Ashbery

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

John Ashbery’s “Darlene’s Hospital” is a seventy-five-line free-verse lyric poem in four verse paragraphs of roughly equal length. The poem explores the process of the poet’s mind as it focuses on the phrase “Darlene’s Hospital.” Like many other Ashbery poems, this one concerns itself with memory and time while both describing and evoking the flow of language and association through the present. Perhaps the simplest thematic statement one could make about “Darlene’s Hospital” is that it is a meditation on the way memory and imagination deal with loneliness and the passage of time, an ever-present reminder of mortality. The daydreaming in the poem is more realistic and less romantic than the daydreams in nineteenth century poetry, but an uneasy tension between realism and romance remains.

Although it is tempting to suppose that Ashbery had been reading Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallot” or looking at one of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings based on that poem, “Darlene’s Hospital” is not a straightforward retelling of Tennyson’s narrative. The room on the island of Shallot where the lady in Tennyson’s poem weaves a “magic web with colors gay” based on her view in a mirror of the landscape around Camelot is mimed in the “colors” and daydreams in Ashbery’s poem. In Tennyson’s poem, the lady is cursed if she looks on the scene directly and can view Camelot only in her mirror, though “She knows not what the curse may be.” Eventually, however, she looks directly at the handsome Lancelot as he rides by. Her mirror cracks, and she secures a boat, leaves the island, and dies, mysteriously cursed, floating on the river.

In “Darlene’s Hospital,” the Lady of Shallot is mentioned in the second verse paragraph in a light and mocking way: The Lady is “in hot water again,” Ashbery’s strategically placed cliché making a joke of Tennyson’s earnest romanticism. The Lady’s presence lingers in the third verse paragraph, where a river flows “Hard by the hospital from whose gilded/ Balconies and turrets fair spirits waved,” as if “Darlene” might be the modern equivalent of the Lady of Shallot, but bounded by the realities of hospitals—perhaps even a mental hospital, with “hospital stay” as a euphemism for time spent in an insane asylum. It is noteworthy that the “fair spirits” are “lonely like us,” for the poem is about both imagination and loneliness.

Now “a different kind of work/ Of the imagination had grown up around” stories that “weren’t true.” The line “and so you looked/ And saw nothing, but suddenly felt better/ Without wondering why” seems to play with the story of the Lady of Shallot as if “you,” the reader, were to look in the real world of your own imagination for a vision such as the Lady’s but see nothing and, instead of dying, suddenly feel better. This is the climax of the poem, the place where the hospital treatment might be said to succeed, so the patient (Darlene, Ashbery in the space of the poem, the reader) feels better. However, “the serial continues:/ Pain, expiation, delight, more pain,” as life rarely has the neatness of a Victorian romantic poem.

In the end the “she” of the poem lingers. The phrase “And if she glides/ Backwards through us, a finger hooked/ Out of death” suggests that the Lady’s modern incarnation need not die completely.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

Evocation, the drawing out of sensory and emotional associations, is central to the method of “Darlene’s Hospital.” A reading of the first verse paragraph foreshadows Ashbery’s method throughout the poem. The first line picks up the word “hospital” from the title, but what follows the phrase “The hospital” is disorienting. Instead of being given a description of a building, readers are taken into “her” mind, only to be told that “the colors” were not “her idea.” “The colors” seem to be the paint on a picture in progress, and though they are “muddy,” they spew “random evocations everywhere.” By association, the hospital becomes “A secret lavender place you weren’t supposed to look into,” the sky, an unlikely place to hide something.

The phrase “Provided that things should pick up next season” seems to refer to the colors’ evocations but is perhaps just a random clause that might fit into any sentence. Ashbery’s ear is tuned to the clichés, idioms, and commonplace phrases that litter discourse, in contrast to Tennyson’s carefully chosen poetic diction. The next sentence seems to relate to the first but also might appear anywhere. The “it” in “It was a way of living” refers vaguely back to “things” picking up next season, but the only “thing” that has occurred is colors sliding “from the brush” and spewing evocations. The whole beginning of the poem evades saying that anything at all has happened, since “it wasn’t her idea” in the first place.

The phrase “way of living” suggests a way of making a living, so it should come as no surprise that in line 6 “she took a job,” and either the job was not odd or it was not odd that she took the job, though Ashbery never says what her job was. In line 7, “the way many minds have been made up” echoes “her way of thinking” in line 5. Line 8 begins with another unclear reference to “It,” but immediately clarifies the reference as being to “the color,” which takes one back to the beginning of the poem. To disorient readers further, the color climbs “the apple of the sky,” described incongruously as a “secret lavender place.”

The tone of the whole verse paragraph is light and whimsical, as “the apple of the sky” (a slight shift from clichéd “apple of her eye”) might emphasize, confirmed by the line “And then a sneeze would come along.” “Sneeze,” suggesting an ailment, is the first word that seems to have anything to do with hospitals. The sneeze blows one from the sky to the shore as, again toying with readers’ expectations, lines 10-14 say the sneeze has the beneficial effect of keeping “us” from being “too far out from shore,” and goes on to mention “a milky afternoon/ Somewhere in late August” with “traffic flowing like mucus,” a natural associative link with a sneeze. The last two lines of the verse paragraph refer to an unspecified “they” and an unclear “its,” along with an idiomatic phrase, “it’s too bad,” which is later echoed by the last phrase of the paragraph, “it’s too late.”


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 129

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Yau, John. “The Poet as Art Critic.” American Poetry Review 34 (May/June, 2005): 45-50.

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