Thursday, August 28, 2008

Poetry and Pain: Jane Cave Winscom

Through life’s meridian bound,
In silent pain I weep;
What joy on earth is found!
Too slow the minutes creep.
O death! Thy aid I crave,
Advance to my relief;
Consign me to the grave,
And banish all my grief.
(An Invocation to Death 21-28)

This is an excerpt taken from the poem "An Invocation to Death" by Jane Cave Winscom. In the 1790s, Winscom wrote three poems ("Written the First Morning of the Author’s Bathing at Teignmouth, For the Head-Ach", "The Head-Ach or An Ode to Health" and "An Invocation to Death") describing living with chronic headache pain. In the above lines, she describes the silent agony she is feeling. The pain is so bad, she craves the "aid" of death to relieve her suffering.

Jane Cave Winscom is somewhat of an obscure poet. Not much is known about her life outside of her poetry. Winscom first published "The Head-Ach" in a newspaper in 1793 as a plea to readers.

Live’s one on earth possess’d of sympathy,
Who knows what is presum’d a remedy?
O send it hither! I again would try,
Tho’ in the attempt of conqu’ring I die.
(The Head-Ach 45-48)

Although written over 200 years ago, some of Winscom's sentiments may seem familiar to modern times. In her three poems, she describes her agonizing pain, multiple treatments she has tried, and a frustration with the medical community who apparently promise much but deliver little.

Physicians, and ye crowd,
Who boast of physic-skills;
I may proclaim aloud,
You’re but a splendid ill!
In vain I’ve sought for cures,
As tortures still confine:
What fruitless pounds are yours!
What pain and anguish mine!
(An Invocation to Death 9-16)

Something that strikes me about Winscom's poetry is the evolution of hope. In the first poem, she seems hopeful that her pain can be can be relieved by bathing in the Teignmouth (a popular treatment at that time for many different illnesses).

I chid my fears—my cowardice was nipped,
And next below the wave my head was dipped:
A strange sensation—in a second o’er,
And I quite braced, much happier than before;
When I bathe next, I’ll have two dippings more.
(Written the First Morning of the Author’s Bathing at Teignmouthlines 18–22 )

By the time she writes the last poem, her hope has changed. She no longer believes in the physicians or other practitioners who have tried in vain to relieve her pain. She now places her hope in death. Through dying, she may finally be at peace.

And ye of tend’rest tye,
To whom I yet am dear!
Heave not a fruitless sigh,
When you behold my bier!
But join me to the dead:
Rejoice my days are o’er;
And say,—“that peaceful head
Shall bow with pain no more.”
(An Invocation to Death 41-48)

Winscom is not alone in using poetry to express physical pain. The American Pain Foundation has more contemporary poems written by those suffering from chronic pain.

References: McKim, A. Elizabeth, "Making Poetry of Pain: The Headache Poems of Jane Cave Winscom" Literature and Medicine 24, no. 1 (Spring 2005) 93–108

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