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Silas Weir Mitchell

(1828-1914 / USA)

The Birth And Death Of Pain


A Poem Read October Sixteenth, Mdcccxcvi, At The Commemoration Of The Fiftieth Anniversary Of The First Public Demonstration Of Surgical Anæsthesia In The Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston


FORGIVE a moment, if a friend's regret
Delay the task your honoring kindness set.
I miss one face to all men ever dear;
I miss one voice that all men loved to hear.
How glad were I to sit with you apart,
Could the dead master* use his higher art
To lift on wings of ever-lightsome mirth
The burdened muse above the dust of earth,
To stamp with jests the heavy ore of thought,
To give a day with proud remembrance fraught,
The vital pathos of that Holmes-spun art
Which knew so well to reach the common heart!
Alas! for me, for you, that fatal hour!
Gone is the master! Ah! not mine the power
To gild with jests that almost win a tear
The thronging memories that are with us here.

The Birth of Pain! Let centuries roll away;
Come back with me to nature's primal day.
What mighty forces pledged the dust to life!
What awful will decreed its silent strife,
Till through vast ages rose on hill and plain
Life's saddest voice, the birthright wail of pain!
The keener sense and ever-growing mind
Served but to add a torment twice refined,
As life, more tender as it grew more sweet,
The cruel links of sorrow found complete
When yearning love, to conscious pity grown,
Felt the mad pain-thrills that were not its own.

What will implacable, beyond our ken,
Set this stern fiat for the tribes of men?
This none shall 'scape who share our human fates:
One stern democracy of anguish waits
By poor men's cots, within the rich man's gates.
What purpose hath it? Nay, thy quest is vain:
Earth hath no answer. If the baffled brain
Cries, 'T is to warn, to punish!—ah, refrain.
When writhes the child beneath the surgeon's hand,
What soul shall hope that pain to understand?
Lo! Science falters o'er the hopeless task,
And Love and Faith in vain an answer ask,
When thrilling nerves demand what good is wrought
Where torture clogs the very source of thought.

Lo! Mercy, ever broadening down the years,
Seeks but to count a lessening sum of tears.
The rack is gone; the torture-chamber lies
A sorry show for shuddering tourist eyes.
How useless pain both Church and State have learned
Since the last witch or patient martyr burned.
Yet still, forever, he who strove to gain
By swift despatch a shorter lease for pain
Saw the grim theatre, and 'neath his knife
Felt the keen torture in the quivering life.
A word for him who, silent, grave, serene,
The thought-stirred actor on that tragic scene,
Recorded pity through the hand of skill,
Heard not a cry, but, ever conscious, still
In mercy merciless, swift, bold, intent,
Felt the slow moment that in torture went
While 'neath his touch, as none to-day has seen,
In anguish shook life's agonized machine.
The task is o'er; the precious blood is stayed;
But double price the hour of tension paid.
A pitying hand is on the sufferer's brow—
'Thank God, 't is over!' Few who face me now
Recall this memory. Let the curtain fall;
Far gladder days shall know this storied hall!

Though Science, patient as the fruitful years,
Still taught our art to close some fount of tears,
Yet who that served this sacred home of pain
Could e'er have dreamed one scarce-imagined gain,
Or hoped a day would bring his feartful art
No need to steel the ever-kindly heart?

So, fled the years! while haply here or there
Some trust delusive left the old despair;
Some comet thought flashed fitful through the night,
Prophetic promise of the coming light;
Then radiant morning broke, and amplet hope
To art and science gave illumined scope.

What angel bore the Christlike gift inspired!
What love divine with noblest courage fired
One eager soul that paid in bitter tears
For the glad helping of unnumbered fears,
From the strange record of creation tore
The sentence sad each sorrowing mother bore,
Struck from the roll of pangs one awful sum,
Made pain a dream, and suffering gently dumb!
Whatever triumphs still shall hold the mind,
Whatever gift shall yet enrich mankind,
Ah! here no hour shall strike through all the years,
No hour as sweet as when hope, doubt, and fears,
'Mid deeping stillness, watched one eager brain,
With Godlike will, decree the Death of Pain.

How did we thank him? Ah! no joy-bells rang,
No pæans greeted, and no poet sang;
No cannon thundered from the guarded strand
This mighty victory to a grateful land!
We took the gift so humbly, simply given,
And, coldly selfish—left our debt to Heaven.
How shall we thank him? Hush! A gladder hour
Has struck for him; a wiser, juster power
Shall know full well how fitly to reward
The generous soul that found the world so hard.

Oh, fruitful Mother, you whose thronging States
Shall deal not vainly with man's changing fates,
Of free-born thought or war's heroic deeds,
Much have your proud hands given, but naught exceeds
This heaven-sent answer to the cry of prayer,
This priceless gift which all mankind may share.

A solemn hour for such as gravely pause
To note the process of creation's laws!
Ah, surely, He whose dark, unfathomed mind
With prescient thought the scheme of life designed,
Who bade His highest creature slowly rise,
Spurred by sad needs and lured by many a prize,
Saw with a God's pure joy His ripening plan,
His highest mercy brought by man to man.

Submitted: Saturday, October 16, 2010

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