Spooky investigates the weirdness of “Boys of Bedlam”: Part II – “Tom O’Bedlam”

In this week’s post, the second based on the eldritch air “Boys of Bedlam”, Spooky interrogates the strange conversation between Mad Maudlin and Tom o’ Bedlam contained in the eponymous lyrics, and performs a forensic examination of Steeleye Span’s musical accompaniment to discover what makes it as weird as the lyric.

Cover of Tom o’Bedlam comic illustrated by Maia Kobaba: published by Redgoldsparks Press

During our journey last time, or our last journey in time, in what turned out to be a virtual derive through the back alleys and dark entries of Boys Of Bedlam, we examined the original lyric on which the Steeleye Span version was based ( Mad MAUDLIN, to find out Tom of BEDLAM) hoping to move closer to the elusive Tom, the subject of Maudlin’s attention. As mentioned there, “Mad MAUDLIN” is a response to the earlier ballad “Tom O’Bedlam”, a work which is widely accepted as the finest anonymous poem in the English language. The literary critic Harold Bloom included it in his collection How to Read and Why, introducing it as follows:

“Tom O’Bedlam” is one of a number of “mad songs,” though nothing else in the genre compares to it, not even the “Mad Song” of William Blake. Try chanting the poem aloud, repeatedly. Its surging power is deeply energizing for the attentive reader, and I strongly recommend the poem for memorization. The singer, supposedly a former inmate of Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital, London), begs by protesting his harmlessness, tells a version of his personal history, and finally expresses a visionary perspective only rarely achieved in poetic history. I know few other poems that open with the speed, directness, and dramatic intensity of Tom O’Bedlam’s song.1

View “Tom O’Bedlam” here and “Mad Maudlin” here

Before we descend into the labyrinthine depths of the text, let us momentarily place the poems side by side to see what the conversation is between Maudlin and Tom. The first, and most obvious, of correspondences occurs between the titles, both of which reference Tom of Bedlam. However, Bedlam itself is referenced directly only once in Tom’s narrative, with several more oblique references to the conditions therein. Whilst the Boys of Bedlam lyric mentions Tom only in the first line, with the rest of the song referencing Maudlin’s adventures echoing the fantastical claims and visions of the poem from which it springs and to which it supposedly corresponds, in the version of Mad Maudlin collected in 1720 by Thomas d’Urfey she makes several, personal comments about him:

  • To find my Tom of Bedlam ten thousand years I’ll travel
  • I now repent that ever poor Tom was so disdain’d
  • My wits are lost since him I crost
  • No gypsy, slut, or doxy shall win my Mad Tom from me
  • We’ll weep all night, and with stars fight, the fray will well become me
  • A health to Tom of Bedlam, go fill the seas in barrels…

These comments flesh out Maudlin, making her more fully formed and contrast with Steeleye Span’s adopted lyric which omits all bar the first of these lines, practically removing her from her own narrative. It is this absence which, perhaps, amplifies the sense of strangeness in “Boys of Bedlam” by leaving her open to possession by the spirit of Tom. It is also evidence of how folk song lyrics evolve, if that is the correct word, through their passage between performers and collectors.

Further interrogation of the texts reveals several words/ phrases in the “Tom O’Bedlam” text which are replicated in the “Maudlin” and “Boys” texts, contextually similar but not always the same: naked/bare; drink; Maudlin; horn; ten leagues/ ten thousand miles/ ten thousand years/ ten thousand harlots; and punks/ harlots/ doxy. Naked and bare which both occur twice in Tom’s narrative are reduced to the repetition of ‘bare’ in the chorus of both Mad Maudlin and Boys of Bedlam; however, it is this chorus repetition which impacts significantly on the listener – causing them to reflect on why “bedlam boys go bare”. The most important of the textually repeated words is undoubtedly “moon”: the “Book of Moons”, the “constant mistress” moon and the moon who “embrace[s] her shepherd” in the original lyric becomes the “man in the moon” and the “quaking/ shaking” moon of the later texts. Robert Graves, author of I Claudius and The White Goddess, contributed an introductory essay to the collection Loving Mad Tom published in 1927, where he not only identified the significance of the moon to the lyric, but also put forward the proposition that the ballad was actually an unattributed work of Shakespeare — a lost song from King Lear! Some years later Graves returned to the poem in a letter to a friend:

I have been worried about thinking about poetry and finding that all the poems that one thinks of as most poetic in the romantic sense are all intricately concerned with primitive moon worship. This sounds crazy, and I fear for my sanity; but it is so. The old English ballads […] are all composed with a sort of neurosis-compulsion for arranging things in threes […] which is the chief characteristic of the Moon Goddess — Triple Goddess — ritual; and the 17th-century Loving Mad Tom poem, which is generally regarded as the most ‘purely poetic’ of all anonymous English compositions is a perfect compendium of Ashtaroth—Cybele—Hecate worship — not a single element omitted.2

The moon as Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone

This “moon madness” continued to infect Graves, eventually resulting in the much celebrated/ maligned “historical grammar of poetic myth” The White Goddess, published in 1961. The main problem, as I see it, with this particular book is that Graves approaches his subject, the nature of poetic myth-making, from a creative, poetic point of view; this results in a text which has the appearance of scholarship but is actually an intuitive riffing on the matter in hand. That is, of course, only a significant stumbling block to some of those who walk the hallowed halls of academia or those who have developed their own theories about myth, religion and the poetic muse. Graves has, however, pointed us towards a suitable avenue for exploration: that is the importance of the moon in Tom O’Bedlam’s narrative.

Right from the off we are immersed in Tom’s world/ madness by the urgency of the protective blessing. As Harold Bloom stated “ few other poems […] open with the speed, directness, and dramatic intensity of 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,

The key element of protection is here provided by the “Book of Moons”, which some commentators have linked to the phases of the moon…in effect a Book of Nature as it were. These would be feasible if we ignore the “spirit” and the “naked man”. Bloom speculates that this may be a “work of popular astrology, as current then as now” and that the reference to the naked man “might be Hermes, a frequent figure in such handbooks.” However, if we are seeking a medieval book which contains the phases of the moon, the naked man and the spirit, the obvious contender is the almanac.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum of Natural Science, carrying an armillary sphere.

The earliest recorded use of the word almanac is by Roger Bacon, the medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar aka Doctor Mirabilis, in 1267, when he used it to refer to a set of tables which detailed the movement of celestial bodies across the heavens, paying particular attention to the moon.This reference occurred in his Opus Majus (Greater Work) of 1267 where Bacon offered treatments not only on mathematics, optics, and astronomy, but also, in a section on Experimental Science, on alchemy and other occult elements which reflected his interest in Magic- a subject which I suspect may crop up in upcoming posts.

Almanacs, or at very least a set of tables detailing the movement of the moon, predated the transition of the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem from an establishment focussed on healing paupers to one dealing exclusively with those suffering from madness, which was complete by the beginning of the fifteenth century. So we can say with certainty that when Tom O’Bedlam was composed, almanacs were to the fore. Over to Richard Aspin from the University of London Wellcome Library, which holds in its collection many fine examples of almanacs from various periods:

The great age of English almanacs was the period 1550–1700, explored by Louise Curth in her seminal work on the subject. It was at this time that almanacs acquired their characteristic booklet format and most elements of the standard suite of non-calendrical components – prognostications (foretelling events of the coming year), medical advice (often accompanied by a zodiac man), tide tables, meteorological guidance, details of legal terms, lists of fairs, weights and measures, and so on. One ubiquitous feature of later English printed almanacs is […] zodiac man. Indeed a crude woodcut of a zodiac man was often the only illustration included in the cheap prints. Zodiac man – a human figure decorated with pictures of the 12 constellations governing various parts of the body – served little practical purpose for either practitioner or patient, even though the figure is often found in later medieval medical books.3

Zodiac man in An Almanack for the Year of our Lord God, 1679 Image credit: Elma Brenner.

As already mentioned in reference to Roger Bacon, during the medieval period astrology and alchemy had not yet been separated from astronomy and chemistry. As Cait Dempsey states in The Medieval Physician’s Almanac, the belief, therefore, that the body and mind were affected by not only cosmological forces but also spiritual ones was widespread. It naturally follows that understanding celestial events would be crucial for medieval medical practitioners.

The belief system operating within the medieval mind had at its very core the essence of correspondence or connection. Thus astronomy/ astrology would be connected with certain alchemical tenets [as above, so below] and the prevailing religion, be it Christianity, Islam or Judaism. As a further extension of this, the theory of melothesia held that the signs of the zodiac were considered to be spiritual, being composed of heavenly bodies, and would, therefore, have a direct influence on the earthly body; the illustration of the Zodiac Man, which was a feature of the English almanac, was a representation of this.

If you have a need to further explore medieval almanacs you can view the British Library’s excellent collection of digitised almanacs here.

Zodiac Constellations courtesy of Space.com

Having identified a strong contender for the “Book of Moons” and its contents, the “spirit” and the “naked man”, we can now use our new-found knowledge to navigate the main body of the poem. Our navigation is further guided by the preponderance of stars which illuminate the sixth stanza:

I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at bloody 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

The significance of this description of the night sky, where both astrology and astronomy hold sway, is revealed by Harold Bloom:

To know more than the sleeping sun god, Apollo, is also to know more than the rational. Tom looks up at the night sky of falling stars (“wounded welkin weeping”) and contrasts these battles to the embraces of the moon, Diana, with her shepherd-lover Endymion, and of the planet Venus with her warrior, Mars. A mythological poet, Mad Tom is also a master of intricate images: the crescent moon enfolds the morning star within the crescent horns, while the Farrier, Vulcan, husband of Venus, is horned in quite another sense, being cuckolded by the lustful Mars. Once these allusions are absorbed, the stanza is magical in its effect, adding strangeness to beauty, a High Romantic formula that the anonymous poet of “Tom O’Bedlam” seems to have learned from Shakespeare.4

Indeed, the work in its entirety has all the punning word-play and riddling of a recurring Shakespearean character: the clown or fool. But whilst Feste in Twelfth Night and The Fool in King Lear use their wits as a weapon against individuals of higher social standing, Tom appears to have lost his wits. I say appears because the intelligence and subtlety displayed in his narrative belies the very idea of his madness to such an extent that it can even be perceived as the performance of a false Bedlamite, an intelligent beggar – as Issac Asminov said ”that, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.’

Loren O’Dair plays the Fool at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2017 Image credit: Marc Brenner

And now, before we direct our attention to the strange music of Span’s “Boys of Bedlam”, let us complete our brief investigation with a more direct look at the references Tom and Maudlin make to each other. Tom initiates the conversation in the third stanza:

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 wakèd,
   Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
   Me found and stripped me naked

Here the vivid memory of Maudlin cuts through the madness and propels him, either in his mind or in actuality, to a liaison with her. The freighted reference to “cockle porridge”, which on one level refers to a stew of weeds and on another conjures up the disturbing image of a form of venereal disease, prepares the way for the more direct, phallic reference of “a thing thus tall” and leaves no doubt regarding the physicality of the relationship. Immediately following consummation, Tom experiences a decline of his mental faculties [dotage] which is exacerbated when he is assaulted by the “ roguish boy of love” [Cupid] who strips him of his emotional defences and leaves him “naked”. As a result he makes his wandering way through a dark land where:

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 anonymous poet here conjures up a darkly satisfying vista, presciently arcing forward over two hundred years, to link with the Gothic [which in turn was casting its gaze back to the so-called Dark Ages] in a scene lit by the moon, soundtracked by owls and nightjars [night crow], and dominated by the threat of the dragon [flaming drake].

In response to Tom’s outpouring, Maudlin, in her narrative, picks up on the ‘naked’ emotional state that Tom was reduced to following their affair, and applies it to all Bedlam ‘bonny boys’ who “still go bare and live by the air and want no drink nor money.” She is prepared to follow Tom for “ten thousand years” [this becomes miles in the Span version] and does so, appropriately, on her bare feet [dirty toes]. This creates an overtone resonating with the self imposed suffering of medieval pilgrims on their sacred journey to the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral or further afield, by way of the removal of her shoes, ostensibly to “save her shoes from gravel”, but also creating a penitential state, echoing that of her namesake, Mary Magdalene. Maudlin’s need for remorseful penance arises from her treatment of Tom, as explained in the second verse

I now repent that ever 
Poor Tom was so disdain’d,
My wits are lost since him I crost, 
Which makes me thus go chain’d

To prove her dedication to Tom, the extreme dimensions of her journey [the lengths, depths, and heights to which she is prepared to go] are then detailed: these include heaven [ My horn is made of thunder, I stole it out of heav’n] and hell [ Pluto’s kitchen – changed to Satan in the Span version]. Whilst Tom does not go to these extremes, although he is summoned to a joust at a tournament, with his “burning spear” and “horse of air” “ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end”, in his wandering he does superimpose an imaginative star chart on the landscape he travels through. This brings to mind the huge land chart of the Zodiac identified by Katherine Maltwood which exists in the topography around Glastonbury. This can be explored in her book Temple of the Stars and, if you are so minded, you can combine the written word with the sounds and sights of the Glastonbury Zodiac to be found on the DVD The Secrets of the Glastonbury Zodiac to create a “Robinsonner”, a term coined by Arthur Rimbaud to describe a journey through a landscape assisted by maps, books and the imagination, all made from the comfort of one’s armchair.

As we now approach the end of this week’s wander, we return to the beginning, to the eldritch atmosphere that encircles the words and music of Steeleye Span’s version of Mad Maudlin’s tale. So, finally, I hear you say, let us turn our attention to how and why the music contributes to the overall strangeness of the piece.

Listen to “Boys of Bedlam” here and view here

For Mark Fisher the weird, as defined in his final book The Weird and Eerie, “is that which does not belong” and can be identified in “the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.” There is no doubt that both of these definitions apply to “Boys of Bedlam” in that there is a weirdness contained not only within the track itself as a freestanding artefact, but also created by where it sits in the sequencing of the album. The first side of the album, a reference which would have been more relevant in 1971 when the vinyl album was released than now, opens with a reworking of “The Blacksmith”, a stalwart of many a folk set at that time. Here the slow tempo, straightforward harmonies and gentle accompaniment of the guitar and dulcimer create a reassuringly homely feel from the outset. The familiarity of the arrangement and performance of the second track, “Cold Haily Windy Night, if not the subject matter, continue the reassuring ambience which is further reinforced by a couple of foot stomping jigs and the controlled, stately air of “Prince Charles Stuart”. But all this is about to change.

The warm blanket sense of security created by the first four tracks is whipped from under us as “Boys of Bedlam” commences. Whereas before we had the reassurance of familiarity, now we are lost in an alien land: it is as sparse and strange and cold as the barren land, both emotional and physical, that Tom inhabits. It is impossible, to paraphrase Mark Fisher, to make any reconciliation between the homeliness of what went before and this weird, disconcerting artefact.

Seemingly from a distance, perhaps across a blasted heath or through the withered branches of a stunted forest, we hear an almost dissonant harmony accompanied by the tapping of some sort of stretched skin. The vocals of MartinCarthy and Maddy Prior have a strangely hollow sound, an effect achieved by the pair singing into the back of a banjo head. Between the chorus and the second verse, all that is heard is the unsophisticated tapping, which in its simplicity seems to carry a subtle threat foreshadowing what is to come: the threat is underlined by the ominous, tolling bass which makes an appearance just as reference is made to Satan. The tapping and tolling sparseness of the accompaniment only makes the ghostly quality of the [un]harmony even creepier. And then the strangeness shifts sideways. An increased tempo is introduced by a cross picked banjo line, which summons up a connection to the northern Georgia wilderness of Boorman’s film Deliverance, just before a descending bass line and shimmering organ leads us into the upbeat vocal, delivered to us by Carthy in a jolly manner; but far from adding any relief, this jolliness further disorientates the listener and amplifies the strangeness of the lines “I cut mince pies from children’s thighs/ with which to feed the faeries”. A musical bridge, where each of the instruments is, like Tom, in constant movement, but not heading in the same direction, leads deeper into the wilderness where a sighing chant approaches from the darkness, proceeding, perhaps, from some strange nocturnal gathering, sweeping over us in a crescendo of waves and then dying and fading back into whatever lies beyond. There is no reassurance provided by the re-emergence of the plinking notes of the banjo accompanied by the rest of the ensemble – quite the reverse in fact – and then, abruptly, it is over.

The clarity of Carthy’s vocals throughout facilitates a hearing, if not an understanding, of this unusual lyric – the fact that most of Mad Maudlin’s lines are delivered by a male voice only adds to the disorientation, and creates a, quite appropriate, minstrel quality to the performance.

And so we come to the end of our drift through the lives of Tom and Maudlin. Have a listen to the song and see what you think. Is the song as weird as my reading of it suggests? Or is my imagination overly tainted with a Gothic sensibility which sees the weird and eerie in the ordinary? Whatever it is, I definitely like it like that. I must rise now. The fire in my chamber needs tending and the drapes pulled to close out the cold, haily, windy night. Till next time I leave you with the following words from Mark Fisher:

“The weird is notable for the way in which it opens up an egress between this world and others.”

  1. Harold Bloom How to Read and Why
  2. Graves to Alan Hodge, 13th July 1943, Selected Letters of Robert Graves pp315-16
  3. University of London, Wellcome Library website
  4. Harold Bloom How to Read and Why

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