The Cottage Hospital


At the end of a long-walled garden
      in a red provincial town,
A brick path led to a mulberry–
      scanty grass at its feet.
I lay under the blackening branches
      where the mulberry leaves hung down
Sheltering ruby fruit globes
      from a Sunday-tea-time heat.
Apple and plum espaliers
      basked upon bricks of brown;
The air was swimming with insects,
      and children played in the street.

Out of this bright intentness
      into the mulberry shade
Musca domestica (housefly)
      swung from the August light
Slap into slithery rigging
      by the waiting spider made
Which spun the lithe elastic
      till the fly was shrouded tight.
Down came the hairy talons
      and horrible poison blade
And none of the garden noticed
      that fizzing, hopeless fight.

Say in what Cottage Hospital
      whose pale green walls resound
With the tap upon polished parquet
      of inflexible nurses' feet
Shall I myself be lying
      when they range the screens around?
And say shall I groan in dying,
      as I twist the sweaty sheet?
Or gasp for breath uncrying,
      as I feel my senses drown'd
While the air is swimming with insects
      and children play in the street?


John Betjeman, Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.