The Art of Healing (W.H. Auden)

(In Memoriam David Protetch, M. D.)

Most patients believe
dying is something they do,
not their physician,
that white-coated sage,
never to be imagined
naked or married.

Begotten by one,
I should know better.
Papa would tell me,
‘is not a science,
but the intuitive art
of wooing Nature.
Plants, beasts, may react
according to the common
whim of their species,
but all humans have
prejudices of their own
which can’t be foreseen.
To some, ill-health is
a way to be important,
others are stoics,
a few fanatics,
who won’t feel happy until
they are cut open.’
Warned by him to shun
the sadist, the nod-crafty,
and the fee-conscious,
I knew when we met,
I had found a consultant
who thought as he did,

yourself a victim
of medical engineers
and their arrogance,
when they atom-bombed
your sick pituitary
and over-killed it.

‘Every sickness
is a musical problem,’
so said Novalis,
‘and every cure
a musical solution’:
You knew that also.
Not that in my case
you heard any shattering
discords to resolve:
to date my organs
still seem pretty sure of their
For my small ailments
you, who were mortally sick,
prescribed with success:
my major vices,
my mad addictions, you left
to my own conscience.
Was it your very
predicament that made me
sure I could trust you,
if I were dying,
to say so, not insult me
with soothing fictions?

Must diabetics
all contend with a nisus
to self-destruction?
One day you told me:
‘It is only bad temper
that keeps me going.’

But neither anger
nor lust are omnipotent,
nor should we even
want our friends to be
superhuman. Dear David,
dead one, rest in peace,
having been what all
doctors should be, but few
and, even when most
difficult, condign
of our biased affection
and objective praise.

Discussion Questions:
1) What traits are “what all doctors should be, but few are”?
2) The patient poses the question “Was it your very predicament that made me sure I could trust you?” As health care providers, how can we respond to death and illness without insulting the patient with “soothing fictions”?


One thought on “The Art of Healing (W.H. Auden)

  1. I am so fortunate to have a friend of such wisdom to soothe my soul at
    times that only wisdom will suffice.
    Thank you my dear Kathryn.


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