04 May 2008

In floods of rancid bile o'erflows: the poetry of medicine

evoted to the mystic practice of healing, the priests of Aesculapius chanted their shamanistic verses long before scientific investigation was introduced into medicine. Over the ages poets good and bad (mostly bad) have communed with their medical muse and set down their deepest sentiments in the special language of symbol and metaphor. However halting or quirky their rhyme and metre, no matter the annihilating banality of their theme or the bottomless bathos of their bavardage, the poets of medicine have left their mark. The magic of poesy has cast its brilliant light on the unfairly neglected subjects of dissection and digestion, sanitation and elimination.

Medical librarians have been alert to these alternative interests of the physicians whose massive clinical texts accumulate on our library shelves. Whatever our own personal feelings may be regarding the poetic or other literary effusions of our patrons, we should not fail to add them to our collections. For example, Jack Coulehan, M.D., M.P.H., has recently published Primary Care (University of Iowa Press), a collection of poems written by physicians who reflect in verse on the uncertainty, pain, anger, sympathy, longing, skepticism, desperation, and love they observe in their patients and often experience themselves. Dr. Coulehan has also edited Blood and Bone: Poems by Physicians.

The thin line between good taste and travesty is easily crossed, however, when medicine is the muse. I have taken a particular interest in those poets, whether medically trained or not, who ostentatiously occupy the other side of that significant divide. In this post I have brought together an evocative collection of my favourites.

John Keats, sweet singer of the English Romantics, studied medicine and died young. In the short time he had to compose some of the greatest poems of the English language, Keats perhaps wisely avoided the daunting task of creating odes or sonnets on the spleen or the perils of gossypiboma. Yet he was no stranger to life's vicissitudes, for he watched his brother die slowly of consumption, and himself succumbed to the same illness a few years later:

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies. (Ode to a Nightingale)
For Keats, poetry and medicine could and did share many ideological threads, among them being his theory of "negative capability." It required a certain clinical detachment and strong powers of observation honed by hours of squinting at cadaver dissections to form the basis of that world view. But despite all his concerns about etiolated youth, alone and palely loitering in unhealthy fens and drafty towers, you will find none of Keats' verse below. His negative capability did not extend to meditations on chyle or sexually transmitted diseases. Nor is William Carlos Williams's work represented. Famous for the modernist minimalism so beautifully expressed in his The Red Wheelbarrow, Williams versified little of his experience as a physician. No red gurneys haunt our modern poetic sensibility.

No, the poets here gathered are special. Some were physicians, but most were mere human beings. What brings them together is their intemperate desire to write on medical subjects, an obsession matched only by their want of taste and utter lack of talent. They have experienced the world through the gimlet eye of the surgeon, the peculiar exudations of the funeral parlour, and the horrors of the dentist's chair. They have dropped dripping literary specimens into pails and left ample swatches of gauze after sewing up thoracic cavities. It takes special courage and determination to mount the heights of Parnassus with paeans to ditches, drains, embryos, bloody scalpels, and intestinal flora. Indeed, only the most sensitive of souls could write an elegy on a dissected puppy or a smothered child.

Drawing upon this rich and redolent tradition, the writing of medical poetry continues today. Not content with the themes and visual imagery of traditional English poetry, it challenges our inner eye and nostril with a singular corpus of verse, a very human afflatus that cuts like or can be cut with a knife. As Kathleen BĂ©res Rogers reminds us:
Indeed, one could say that modern-day medical poets and patients repeat the traditionally conceived Romantic project, expressing a “spontaneous overflow” of “powerful emotion, recollected in tranquility”: after the diagnosis, the surgery, the recovery, or the death. Yet by writing their poems, medical poets—now and then—remind us that our bodies also exist as a part of the natural world, defined by both their sublimity and materiality. (Medical poems and the Romantic rise of disciplinarity. Thesis. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil, 2007, p. 151.)
Each year the human body excretes its own weight in bacteria. Here is an earthy subject of a sublimity and materiality perfectly fitted to the imaginative powers of the poets gathered together in this little anthology. How sad that as yet no English poets have applied themselves to this formidable reality of human existence. We are the lesser for it.

The poems and fragments assembled below, spanning a period of many centuries, are arranged thematically. Readers are encouraged to be moderate in their perusal of the collection, for too rich a diet of this poetry of medicine could require the attentions of a physician.



Two loves found refuge in my happy heart,
One for my bride, one for the healing art;
Each of my spirit claimed an equal part.

But, as my talent rose and waxed mature,
Love for my bride became more insecure,
Love for anatomy more deep and pure.

She was a subject to my eyes alone;
Not woman, forsooth, but so much flesh and bone,
Sinew, and blood, and skin, which were my own.

And I had lawful right, with foul intent,
I who for progress on this sphere was sent,
To use her body for experiment.

So in her wine I dropped consuming blight,
One moaning, shadow-haunted winter night,
And, watching, clutched my scalpel's handle tight.

Then, ere her eyes, that agony expressed,
Had closed forever, with impatient zest,
My hands were red dissecting her white breast.

Francis Saltus Saltus (1849-1889)


Sweet Dog! now cold and stiff in death,
What cruel hand enticed thee here?
Did toothsome crust of juicy bone
Allure to stretch on thy bier?

... ruthless hands of alien race
Are opening up thy quiet breast,
With prying eyes they peer within,
Explore the contents of thy chest.

Georgia Bailey Parrington (fl. 1907)


And as the anatomist, with all his band
Of rude disciples, o'er the subject hung,
And impolitely hewed his way, through bones
And muscles of the sacred human form,
Exposing barbarously to wanton gaze
The mysteries of nature, joint embraced
His kindred joint, the wounded flesh grew up,
And suddenly the injured man awoke
Among their hands, and stood arrayed complete
In immortality—forgiving scarce
The insult offered to his clay in death.

Robert Pollock (1798-1827)


In this image

Of your brain
I see each curve
In the corpus callosum,
Curlicues of gyri,
Folding of fissures,
Sinuous sulci,
Mammillary bodies,
Arcuate fasciculus,
Angular gyrus,
Tracts and nuclei,
Eyes and ears,
Tongue and phalanx.

But not even
A single syllable
Of one

Vernon Rowe. In: Angela Belli and Jack Coulehan, eds. Blood and Bone: Poems by Physicians (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998), p. 102.


Stranger! Approach this spot with gravity!
John Brown is filling his last cavity.



You have gone, old tooth,
Though hard to yield,
You have long stood alone,
Like a stub in the field.

Farewell, old tooth
That tainted my breath,
And tasted as smells
A woodpecker's nest


... her lips disclosed to view,
Those ruined arches, veiled in ebon hue,
Where love had thought to feast the ravished sight
On orient gems reflecting snowy light,
Hope, disappointed, silently retired,
Disgust triumphant came, and love expired!

When'er along the ivory disks, are seen,
The filthy footsteps of the dark gangrene;
When caries come, with stealthy pace to throw
Corrosive ink spots on those banks of snow—
Brook no delay, ye trembling, suffering Fair,
But fly for refuge to the Dentist's care.

Solyman Brown (1790-1876)



On her beautiful face there are smiles of grace
That linger in beauty serene,
And there are no pimples encircling her dimples,
As ever, as yet, I have seen.

J. Gordon Coogler (1865-1901)

Emergency Medicine


'Twas on the 8th April, on the afternoon of that day,
That the little village of Louisberg was thrown into a wild state of dismay,
And the villagers flew to the beach in a state of wild uproar,
And in a dory they found four men were cast ashore.

Then the villagers, in surprise, assembled about the dory,
And they found that the bottom of the boat was gory;
Then their hearts were seized with sudden dread,
When they discovered that two of the men were dead.

And the two survivors were exhausted from exposure, hunger, and cold,
Which caused the spectators to shudder when them they did behold ...

They were carried to a boarding-house without delay,
But those that were looking on were stricken with dismay,
When the remains of James and Angus M'Donald were found in the boat,
Likewise three pieces of flesh in a pool of blood afloat.

Angus M'Donald's right arm was missing from the elbow,
And the throat was cut in a sickening manner, which filled the villagers' hearts with woe,
Especially when they saw two pieces of flesh had been cut from each thigh,
'Twas then the kind-hearted villagers did murmur and sigh.

William McGonagall (1830-1902)



Oh, ditch of all ditches,
Death's store-house of riches,
Where wan disease slumbers mid festoons of slime!
Oh, dark foetid sewer
Where death is the brewer
And ail is the liquor he brews all the time!

Oh, hot-bed of fever,
That fatal bereaver
Whose fiery breath blights the blossom of life!
Oh, palace of miasm
Whose hall is a chasm
Where pestilence revels and poison is rife!

Oh, wonderful sewer,
Each year brings a newer
And ghostlier charm to they cavernous deeps!
More puppies and cats,
To say nothing of rats,
And offal and filth of all manner in heaps.

Anonymous. Originally appeared in the Fayetteville North Carolinian on February 21, 1857.



The languid stomach curses e'en the pure
Delicious fat, and all the race of oil:
For more the oily aliments relax
Its feeble tone; and with the eager lymph
(Fond to incorporate with all it meets)
Coyly they mix, and shun with slipp'ry wiles
The woo'd embrace. Th'irresoluble oil,
So gentle late and blandishing, in floods
Of rancid bile o'erflows: what tumults hence,
What horrors rise, were nauseous to relate.
Choose leaner viands, ye whose jovial make
Too fast the gummy nutriment imbibes.


Half subtilis'd to chyle, the liquid food
Readiest obeys th'assimilating powers;
And soon the tender vegetable mass
Relents . . . .
The stomach, urged beyond its active tone,
Hardly to nutrimental chyle subdues
The softest food: unfinished and depraved,
The chyle, in all its future wand'rings, owns
Its turbid fountain; not by purer streams
So to be cleared, but foulness will remain.

John Armstrong (1709-1779)

Infectious Disease


Poor little Ada Queetie has departed this life,
Never to be here no more,
No more to love, no more to speak.

Poor little Ada Queetie's last sickness and death,
Destroyed my health at an unknown rate,
With my heart breaking and weeping,
I kept the fire going night after night, to keep poor little dear warm,
Poor little heart, she was sick one week
With froth in her throat,
Then 10 days and grew worse, with dropsy in her stomach,
I kept getting up nights to see how she was.

She was coming 9 years of age, when she was taken away,
By all I found out, very certain true
Poor Sissy hatched her out her egg in Chilmark,
The reason she was taken away before poor Sissy,
Her constitution was as weak as weak could be.

Her complaint that caused her death,
Was just such a complaint as poor Sissy had
Only poor Sissy's complaint ended with dropsy in her stomach.

Nancy Luce (fl. 1860s)

Internal Medicine


I always choose the plainest food
To mend viscidity of blood.
Hail! water gruel, healing power,
Of easy access to the poor;
Thy help love's confessors implore,
And doctors secretly adore:
To thee I fly, by thee dilute—
Through veins my blood doth quicker shoot;
And by swift current throws off clean
Prolific particles of spleen.

Matthew Green (1697-1737)


Gooing babies, helpless pygmies,
Who shall solve your Fate's enigmas?

from The Light-Bearer of Liberty, by J.W. Scholl (A pathetic attempt at rhyme by a very bad poet)


Between our folding lips
God slips
An embryon life, and goes;
And this becomes your rose.
We love, God makes: in our sweet mirth
God spies occasion for a birth.
Then is it his, or is it ours?
I know not—He is fond of flowers.

T.E. Brown (1830-1897)



Oh! she was a lovely girl,
So pretty and so fair,
With gentle, lovelit eyes,
And wavy, dark-brown hair.

I loved the gentle girl,
But oh! I heaved a sigh,
When first she told me she could see
Out of only one eye.

But soon I thought within myself,
I'd better save my tear and sigh,
To bestow upon some I know,
Who has more than one eye.

She is brave and intelligent,
Too she is witty and wise,
She'll accomplish more now, than many,
Who have two eyes.

Ah! you need not pity her,
She needs not your tear and sigh,
She makes good use, I tell you,
Of her one remaining eye.

Lillian E. Curtis (fl. 1870s)



Misfortune sometimes is a prize,
And is a blessing in disguise;
A man with a stout wooden leg,
Through town and country he can beg.

And when he only has one foot,
He needs to brush only one boot;
Through world he does jolly peg,
So cheerful with his wooden leg.

In mud or water he can stand
With his foot on the firm dry land,
For wet he doth not care a fig,
It never hurts his wooden leg.

No aches he has but on the toes
Of one foot, and but one gets froze;
He has many a jolly rig,
And oft enjoys his wooden leg.

James Macintyre (1827-1906). A Canadian noted for another immortal poem, Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.

Pediatrics (Psychiatry?)


Within a London hospital there lies,
Tucked in his cot,
A child with golden curls and big blue eyes.
The night is hot,
And though the windows in the long low ward
Are open wide,
No breath of air comes from the sun-baked yard
That lies outside.

A kindly nurse who sees his wistful smile,
To cheer him cries;
"The doctor says that in a little while
He'll let you rise,
And send you home again!" His eyes grow dim.
She little thinks
What since his father died home means to him—
His mother drinks!


Theirs was not the peaceful death-bed,
Where affection's silent tears,
O'er the couch of pain fast falling,
Blend with deep responsive prayers;

Nay, their death was strangely fearful!
No fond parent closed their eyes,
And no voice of pity answer'd
To their feebly moaning cries!

Mrs. Marion Albina Bigelow (fl. 1850s)

Public Health


This is the song for a soldier
To sing as he rides from home
To the fields afar where the battles are
Or over the ocean's foam:
"Whatever the dangers waiting
In the lands I have not seen,
If I do not fall—if I come back at all,
Then I will come back clean.

"I may lie in the mud of the trenches,
I may reek with blood and mire,
But I will control, by the God in my soul,
The might of my man's desire.
I will fight my foe in the open,
But my sword shall be sharp and keen
For the foe within who would lure me to sin,
And I will come back clean."

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)


Magnificent, too, is the system of drains,
Exceeding the far-spoken wonders of old:
So lengthen'd and vast in its branches and chains,
That labyrinths pass like a tale that is told:
The sewers gigantic, like multiplied veins,
Beneath the whole city their windings unfold,
Disgorging the source of plagues, scourges, and pains,
Which visit those cities to cleanliness cold.
Well did the ancient proverb lay down this important text,
That cleanliness for human weal to godliness is next.

Samuel Carter (fl. 1848-1851)



There are hearts—stout hearts,—that own no fear
At the whirling sword or the darting spear,—
that are ready alike to bleed in the dust,
'Neath the sabre's cut or the bayonet's thrust;
They heed not the blows that Fate may deal,
From the murderer's dirk or the soldier's steel:
But lips that laugh at the dagger of strife
Turn silent and white from the surgeon's knife.

It shines in the grasp—'tis no weapon for play,
A shudder betrays it is speeding its way;
While the quivering muscle and severing joint
Are gashed by the keen edge and probed by the point.
Dripping it comes from the cells of life,
While glazing eyes turn from the surgeon's knife.

Eliza Cook (1818-1889)


[A brigand is overpowered in the act of attempting to molest a lady and requires medical care:]

So stunned, surrounded and beset,
The surgeon struggled hard to see
His patient, or at least to get
Some signs of his proximity:
At length they opened up a way
To where a man extended, lay,
Presenting an appalling sight
Seen dimly through the chequered light...
For swelling, high amid the clothes,
The body, like a mountain rose
That scarce the head was seen;
While from below the feet protrude
(Like Satan "stretching many a rood"
So giant-like I ween.) —
And on those large and naked feet
A pair of antique spurs were placed,
Which fastened o'er the instep meet,
With many-coloured latchets graced.

[The surgeon enquires later:]

"Since when he has," (replied the nurse,)
"Been going on from bad to worse."

Samuel Carter (fl. 1848-1851)



When people's ill they comes to I,
I physics, bleeds, and sweats 'em.
Sometimes they live, sometimes they die;
What's that to I? I Letsome.


For physic and farces his equal there scarce is;
His farces are physic; his physic a farce is.

David Garrick


Coy Nature (which remain'd, though aged grown,
A beauteous virgin still, enjoy'd by none,
Nor seen unveil'd by any one),
When Harvey's violent passion she did see,
Began to tremble and to flee,
Took sanctuary, like Daphne, in a tree:
There Daphne's lover stopt, and thought it much
The very leaves of her to touch,
But Harvey, our Apollo, stopt not so,
Into the bark and root he after her did go.

Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)

In closing

And now, kind friends, what I have wrote,
I hope you will pass o'er,
And not criticize as some have done,
Hitherto herebefore.

Julia A. Moore (1847-1920) "The Sweet Singer of Michigan."


Unknown said...

Thank you for that post - beautiful selection of poetry. I can only imagine how many hours you worked to collect those.