"Tom O'Bedlam" is the name of an anonymous poem in the "mad song" genre, written in the voice of a homeless "Bedlamite." The poem was probably composed at the beginning of the 17th century; in How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom calls it "the greatest anonymous lyric in the [English] language."
The term "Tom O'Bedlam" was used in Early Modern Britain and later to describe beggars and vagrants who had or feigned mental illness (see also Abraham-men). They claimed, or were assumed, to have been former inmates at the Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam). It was commonly thought that inmates were released with authority to make their way by begging, though this is probably untrue. If it happened at all the numbers were certainly small, though there were probably large numbers of mentally ill travellers who turned to begging, but had never been near Bedlam. It was adopted as a technique of begging, or a character. For example, Edgar in King Lear disguises himself as mad "Tom O'Bedlam".
Structure and verses
As we know it, the poem has eight verses of eight lines each, each verse concluding with a repetition of a four-line chorus. The existence of a chorus suggests that the poem may originally have been sung as a ballad. The version reproduced here is the one presented in Bloom's How to Read and Why.
Mad Maudlin's Search
The original ballad was popular enough that another poem was written in reply, "Mad Maudlin's Search" or "Mad Maudlin's Search for Her Tom of Bedlam" (the same Maud who was mentioned in the verse "With a thought I took for Maudlin / And a cruise of cockle pottage / With a thing thus tall, Sky bless you all / I befell into this dotage." which apparently records Tom going mad, "dotage") or "Bedlam Boys" (from the chorus, "Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys / Bedlam boys are bonny / For they all go bare and they live by the air / And they want no drink or money."), whose first stanza was:
- For to see Mad Tom of Bedlam,
- Ten thousand miles I've traveled.
- Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes,
- For to save her shoes from gravel
The remaining stanzas include:
- I went down to Satan's kitchen
- To break my fast one morning
- And there I got souls piping hot
- All on the spit a-turning.
- There I took a cauldron
- Where boiled ten thousand harlots
- Though full of flame I drank the same
- To the health of all such varlets.
- My staff has murdered giants
- My bag a long knife carries
- To cut mince pies from children's thighs
- For which to feed the fairies.
- No gypsy, slut or doxy
- Shall win my mad Tom from me
- I'll weep all night, with stars I'll fight
- The fray shall well become me.
Because of the number of variants and confusion between the two manuscripts, neither "Tom O'Bedlam" nor "Mad Maudlin" can be said to be definitive texts.
In modern culture
- Lin Carter included the poem in his 1969 fantasy anthology Dragons, Elves, and Heroes.
- Tom O'Bedlam is the name Edgar gives in Shakespeare's King Lear when he pretends to be a mad vagrant. It is also to be found in a case before Star Chamber in 1632 when a Sussex man complains of being defamed in a set of verses sung in the ale houses of Rye to the tune of Tom O'Bedlam, further indication that it was a ballad.
- Grant Morrison's comicbook series The Invisibles has a homeless old man called Tom O'Bedlam who is supposedly mad. Tom appears early on in the series when he explains the truth behind the world to Jack Frost.
- Darrell Schweitzer has written a series of fantasy short stories featuring Tom O'Bedlam as a character.
- Kenneth Patchen's surrealist novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight is loosely based on and makes frequent reference to the poem.
- Part II of Alfred Bester's novel The Stars My Destination is introduced with a section of the poem.
- Robert Silverberg's science fiction novel Tom O' Bedlam (1985) includes several quotations from the poem. The main character also calls himself by that name.
- John Brunner's 1968 novel Bedlam Planet prefaces each chapter with entire stanzas from the poem, titling the chapter after the subject of the stanza.
- Mercedes Lackey has co-authored a series of books whose titles are taken from verses of the poem.
- Marion Zimmer Bradley includes part of the poem in The Winds of Darkover.
- A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer mentions the song often, in quotes and as the party anthem of the Monarchist party in Aravis.
- Dan Abnett's Horus Heresy novel Legion, Book 7 of the Horus Heresy book series, uses the first 4 lines of the poem.
- In Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, John Canty says of Edward "Gone stark mad as any Tom o'Bedlam!"
- Tom O'Bedlam is an important inspiration for the character of Tom Tyson in the Rynosseros cycle of Terry Dowling. Tom Tyson in these stories has emerged from the Madhouse (here, a place where the Aboriginal tribes of the future Australia have confined rebels). Tyson has no memories and the cycle largely concerns his quest to recover these lost memories.
- Parts of Derek Walcott's poem, The Bounty (1997), are addressed to "mad Tom."
- Folk rock band Steeleye Span set the poem to music on the album Please to See the King.
- Jolie Holland recorded a version of Maudlin's song titled "Mad Tom of Bedlam" on her 2004 album Escondida. Charlene Kaye also recorded this version for her The Brilliant Eyes EP.
- Old Blind Dogs a traditional Scottish band recorded a version titled "Bedlam Boys" on their 1992 debut album New Tricks and a new arrangement on their 2004 album Four on the Floor.
- Timothy Taylor quotes the poem in his 2001 novel Stanley Park
- Alaska-based Celtic rock band Fire on McGinnis released their version of Bedlam Boys on their debut album Fire on McGinnis (2012). The song was also released as an animated video by Dominik Litwiniak, Warsaw, Poland.
- In the Warhammer 40,000 novel "Legion" by Dan Abnett, the characters Peto Soneka and Dimitar Shaban both know at least the first stanza of the poem, though from different experiences.
- A recording of the poem sung in the style of a tavern song is included in the soundtrack of the video game Stronghold 3. For unknown reasons, the line "Ten thousand miles I've traveled" was changed to "Ten thousand years I travel".
- An incidental character in Rosemary Sutcliff's Brother Dusty-Feet is called "Tom O'Bedlam" and sings this poem (anachronistically: Brother Dusty-Feet is set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth), of which only the last verse (without the refrain) occurs in the text.
- Sean Bonney quotes "my bag a long knife carries", crediting 'Tom o'Bedlam' in his 2011 poem The Commons.
- How to Read and Why, pp. 104-107.
- "minstrel: Tom of Bedlam...."
- "Tom O'Bedlam "
- "Bedlam Boys"
- "minstrel: Tom O'Bedlam, Calino"
- Abnett, Dan (2008). Legion: secrets and lies (mass market paperback) (print). Horus Heresy [book series] 7. Cover art & illustration by Neil Roberts (1st UK ed.). Nottingham, UK: Black Library. pp. 39, 261. ISBN 978-1-84416-536-0.
- Twain, M. (1996, p.53), The prince and the pauper. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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- Comments by Isaac Disraeli in "Curiosities of Literature"