Tom o' Bedlam

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Tom o' Bedlam is a character who figures in several anonymous 17th century poems, where he is presented as a wandering beggar who has been discharged from the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlem, a London asylum. In King Lear Edgar adopts the persona of Tom o' Bedlam.

King Lear[edit]

  • Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul
    Fiend hath led through fire and through flame,
    Through ford and whirlpool, over bog and quagmire;
    That hath laid knives under his pillow, and halters
    In his pew; set ratsbane by his porridge; made him
    Proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting-horse over
    Four-inched bridges, to course his own shadow for a
    Traitor. Bless thy five wits! Tom's a-cold. O! do
    De, do de, do de. Bless thee from whirlwinds,
    Star-blasting, and taking! Do poor Tom some
    Charity, whom the foul fiend vexes.
    • Edgar, Act III, sc. iv

  • Poor Tom; that eats the swimming frog, the toad
    The tadpole, the wall-newt, and the water; that in
    The fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages,
    Eats cow-dung for sallets; swallows the old rat, and
    The ditch-dog; drinks the green mantle of the
    Standing pool; who is whipped from tithing to
    Tithing, and stocked, punished, and imprisoned; who
    Hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his
    Body, horse to ride, and weapon to wear,
    But mice, and rats, and such small deer,
    Have been Tom's food for seven long year.
    • Edgar, Act III, sc. iv

  • Old Man: 'Tis poor mad Tom.
    Edgar: And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
    So long as we can say, "This is the worst".
    • Act IV, sc. i

Tom o' Bedlam's Song[edit]

"Tom o' Bedlam's Song" has a complex textual history and can be found in many widely divergent forms. The quotations here are cited from Robert Graves The Common Asphodel (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949) pp. 209-211.

  • 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.
    • St. 1

  • While I do sing "any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing?"
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid:
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.
    • Refrain

  • On the lordly lofts of Bedlam
    With stubble soft and dainty,
    Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips ding-dong,
    And wholesome hunger plenty.
    • St. 2

  • The Moon's my constant mistress
    And the lovely owl my marrow.
    The flaming drake and the night-crow make
    Me music to my sorrow.
    • St. 4

  • With an host of furious fancies
    Whereof I am commander,
    With a burning spear and a horse of air
    To the wilderness I wander.
    By a knight of ghosts and shadows
    I summoned am to tourney,
    Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end –
    Methinks it is no journey.
    • St. 8

Loving Mad Tom[edit]

Quotations are cited from Mark S. Bauer (ed.) A Mind Apart: Poems of Melancholy, Madness and Addiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) pp. 91-92.

  • I'll bark against the Dog-star,
    And crow away the morning;
    I'll chase the moon
    Till it be noon,
    And I'll make her leave her horning.
    • St. 1

  • I'll sail upon a millstone,
    And make the sea-gods wonder;
    I'll plunge in the deep, till I wake asleep,
    And I'll tear the rocks in sunder.
    • St. 4

To Find My Tom of Bedlam[edit]

Quotations are cited from Hugh Hatton The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988) p. 120.

  • To find my Tom of Bedlam, ten thousand years I'll travel.
    Mad Maudlin goes with dirty toes to save her shoes from gravel.
    • St. 1

  • My horn is made of thunder, I stole it out of Heaven,
    The rainbow there is this I wear, for which I hence was driven.
    • St. 4

Forth from My Sad and Darksome Cell[edit]

Quotations are cited from Peter Holland King Lear and its Afterlife (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) p. 89. The poem may be by William Basse

  • Forth from my sad and darksome cell,
    From the deep abyss of Hell,
    Mad Tom is come to view the world again,
    To see if he can ease his distemper'd brain.
    Fear and despair pursue my soul.
    Hark! how the angry Furies howl!
    Pluto laughs, and Proserpine is glad,
    To see poor naked Tom of Bedlam mad.
    Through the woods I wander night and day
    To find my straggling senses.
    • St. 1

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