Tom o' Bedlam
"Tom o' Bedlam" is the title 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 called it "the greatest anonymous lyric in the [English] language."
The terms "Tom o' Bedlam" and “Bedlam beggar” were used to describe beggars and vagrants who had or feigned mental illness (see also Abraham-men). Aubrey writes that such a beggar could be identified by “an armilla of tin printed, of about three inches breadth” attached to his left arm. They claimed, or were assumed, to be former inmates of 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 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
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" (she may be meant to be the Maud who seems to be 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) 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 is:
- 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 of each poem, and confusion between the two, neither "Tom o' Bedlam" nor "Mad Maudlin" can be said to have definitive texts.
The folk-rock band Steeleye Span recorded "Boys of Bedlam",a version of "Mad Maudlin", on their 1971 album Please To See The King. Steeleye recorded a very different arrangement of the track in 2016 on the Dodgy Bastards album, which included a rap section and a bassline that set the song in the Phrygian Mode.
- Harold Bloom at Charlie Rose
- The National Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, Volume 3, London: Charles Knight, 1847, p.86.
- Bloom, Harold (2000). How to Read and Why. New York: Scribner. pp. 104–107. ISBN 0-684-85906-8.[edition verification needed]
- "minstrel: Tom of Bedlam...." Archived October 25, 2004, at the Wayback Machine
- "Tom o' Bedlam "
- "Bedlam Boys"
- "minstrel: Tom o' Bedlam, Calino" Archived February 14, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
- Loving Mad Tom: Bedlamite verses of the XVI and XVII centuries; with five illustrations by Norman Lindsay; the texts edited with notes by Jack Lindsay; musical transcriptions by Peter Warlock. London: Fanfrolico Press, 1927
- Comments by Isaac D'Israeli in "Curiosities of Literature"