Mad Heroines in Verse

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852)

I find myself drawn to depictions of women and madness in literature. It is a recurring theme throughout literary history, often in works where madness is displayed as both a reaction to patriarchal constraints and a kind of freedom from those constraints. At times, a particular literary heroine has inspired me to try to capture her experience in verse:

Remembrance (1997)

you and you and you
a tragedy
of soaking locks and floating
layers of dark linen
becoming the river
and staring with empty eyes
at spinning wild flowers and weeds
white limbs swallowed
by murky water

Ophelia they said was mad
and I with her in love with love
and every flower but forget-me-nots

one for you and you and you
a tragedy
of crownflowers and daisies
and swirls of rosemary
tangled with willow
while ivory hands still cling
to sharp nettles and long purples
blackened with mire
and lingering madness

Bertha (2004)

this is not your name

Bertha means
walled gardens
and stairs climbing upward
always upward

cling to that tree
hold fast though it jerks
and sways

when you remember
there will be fire
cleansing restoring

wings of flame
will bear you up
and when the parrot asks
Qui est là? Qui est là?
this time you will answer

The Ghost (2004)

I have seen the ghost

she is smaller than I expected
dressed all in white
eyes glowing with fear
or something else

she carries a candle
and is always looking
back as if there is a ghost
haunting her as well

it is such a big house
for so slight a girl
he thinks she came from a fairy ring

but there is no mischief in those eyes
no magic either

maybe if she saw her reflection
she would remember


© Jennifer Bertrand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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