Thursday, November 3, 2011

Who Is Tom?

The question was asked, "Who is Tom?" I've attached the original, anonymous 16th century poem "Tom O'Bedlam's Song" which makes clear he is a madman. There is another song, a kind of call and response to Tom O'Bedlam's Song, on which I have based my character of Mad Maud.

Our word 'bedlam' comes from St. Mary of Bethlehem, a London asylum.  There was one long corridor in the building, as in a ship's hold, and each of the inmates were bedded like the legs of a centipede off this long hallway, which was called Abraham. Some of the inmates, in order to pay for their bread and board, were given tin badges which made them legally able to beg, both in London and in the countryside. They were called 'Abram men' and though they could be mad, they could also be 'rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars,' masterless men who terrified Elizabethan society: thieves, pimps, gypsies and other ne'er do wells who roamed the streets and generally raised hell. Tom could be any or all of the above.

Tom's poem describes his sojourns in Bedlam ('in durance soundly caged'), with references to chicken and pig stealing (pigs, pullen and culvers, doves); snacking at St. Paul's in the cemetery near the tomb of Sir Humphrey, and sleeping with ghosts there. There is much that is mysterious and beautiful here, and it's not clear how much of this gorgeous poem can be contributed to his madness or if those who heard the poem would have understood all the references. Tom would have been well known to the theatre-going crowd in London: in King Lear when Edgar is feigning madness, he refers to himself as Tom, clearly a Bedlamite. An Abram men was a familiar character both in the theatre and in the countryside.

There is another poem, in Maud or Maudlin's voice, which refers to her looking the whole world over for 'her Tom." In her poem, which is not as widely known, she too appears to have been or be mad. I've decided that Tom and Maud have been lovers, have driven or been driven insane by the other.

Here is the original poem:

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.
Of thirty bare years have I,
Twice twenty been enraged,
  And of forty been
  Three times fifteen,
in durance soundly caged,
In the lordly lofts of Bedlam,
With the stubble soft and dainty,
  Brave bracelets strong,
Sweet whips ding-dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty.
With a thought I took for Maudlin,
And a cruse of cockle pottage.
  With a thing thus tall,
  Sky bless you all,
I befell into this dotage.
I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never waked.
  Till the roguish boy
  Of love where I lay
Me found and stripped me naked.
When short I have shorn my sow's face,
And swigged my horny barrel,
  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
  The flaming drake
  and the night crow make
Me music to my sorrow.
The palsy plagues my pulses,
When I prig your pigs or pullen,
  Your culvers take,
  or matchless make
Your Chanticleer or Sullen.
When I want provant, with Humphry
I sup, and when benighted,
  I repose in Paul's
  with waking souls,
Yet never am affrighted.
I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
  I see 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 morn,
and the next the heavenly Farrier.      
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 tourney
  Ten leagues beyond
  The wild world's end--
Methinks it is no journey.


  1. hi melissa: i am always so pleased when you let us have a glimpse of your erudition. i wanted to spend hours online, after reading this yesterday, poking around, looking up terms and allusions. it's fascinating stuff...and i am looking forward to more, as noted....
    cheers! (gorgeous sunshine up north here today; white caps on the bay....)
    love susan

  2. Glad you are delighted with all this, Susan. It is fascinating, a fabulous poem, and I could have written a Master's Thesis on all the allusions and possible meanings, but I'm having much more fun with Mad Maud,though Tom O"Bedlam's Song is so bloody perfectly and beautiful, I have a lot of gall to try to invent a character to match his. But what's a girl to do?xo

  3. As a beginner, I so appreciate the background. It's fascinating, and like Susan, I want to explore this all night! I can see why you've been inspired by this. And I love how you've decided that the two characters have been lovers, driving each other insane. I'm always afraid to take those kinds of leaps!

    Thank you, thank you! :)