Oliver Wendell Holmes

(1809-1894 / United States)

The Morning Visit - Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes

A sick man's chamber, though it often boast
The grateful presence of a literal toast,
Can hardly claim, amidst its various wealth,
The right unchallenged to propose a health;
Yet though its tenant is denied the feast,
Friendship must launch his sentiment at least,
As prisoned damsels, locked from lovers' lips,
Toss them a kiss from off their fingers' tips.

The morning visit,--not till sickness falls
In the charmed circles of your own safe walls;
Till fever's throb and pain's relentless rack
Stretch you all helpless on your aching back;
Not till you play the patient in your turn,
The morning visit's mystery shall you learn.

'T is a small matter in your neighbor's case,
To charge your fee for showing him your face;
You skip up-stairs, inquire, inspect, and touch,
Prescribe, take leave, and off to twenty such.

But when at length, by fate's transferred decree,
The visitor becomes the visitee,
Oh, then, indeed, it pulls another string;
Your ox is gored, and that's a different thing!
Your friend is sick: phlegmatic as a Turk,
You write your recipe and let it work;
Not yours to stand the shiver and the frown,
And sometimes worse, with which your draught goes down.
Calm as a clock your knowing hand directs,
_Rhei, jalapae ana grana sex_,
Or traces on some tender missive's back,
_Scrupulos duos pulveris ipecac_;
And leaves your patient to his qualms and gripes,
Cool as a sportsman banging at his snipes.
But change the time, the person, and the place,
And be yourself 'the interesting case,'
You'll gain some knowledge which it's well to learn;
In future practice it may serve your turn.
Leeches, for instance,--pleasing creatures quite;
Try them,--and bless you,--don't you find they bite?
You raise a blister for the smallest cause,
But be yourself the sitter whom it draws,
And trust my statement, you will not deny
The worst of draughtsmen is your Spanish fly!
It's mighty easy ordering when you please,
_Infusi sennae capiat uncias tres_;
It's mighty different when you quackle down
Your own three ounces of the liquid brown.
_Pilula, pulvis_,--pleasant words enough,
When other throats receive the shocking stuff;
But oh, what flattery can disguise the groan
That meets the gulp which sends it through your own!
Be gentle, then, though Art's unsparing rules
Give you the handling of her sharpest tools;
Use them not rashly,--sickness is enough;
Be always 'ready,' but be never 'rough.'

Of all the ills that suffering man endures,
The largest fraction liberal Nature cures;
Of those remaining, 't is the smallest part
Yields to the efforts of judicious Art;
But simple _Kindness_, kneeling by the bed
To shift the pillow for the sick man's head,
Give the fresh draught to cool the lips that burn,
Fan the hot brow, the weary frame to turn,--
Kindness, untutored by our grave M. D.'s,
But Nature's graduate, when she schools to please,
Wins back more sufferers with her voice and smile
Than all the trumpery in the druggist's pile.

Once more, be quiet: coming up the stair,
Don't be a plantigrade, a human bear,
But, stealing softly on the silent toe,
Reach the sick chamber ere you're heard below.
Whatever changes there may greet your eyes,
Let not your looks proclaim the least surprise;
It's not your business by your face to show
All that your patient does not want to know;
Nay, use your optics with considerate care,
And don't abuse your privilege to stare.
But if your eyes may probe him overmuch,
Beware still further how you rudely touch;
Don't clutch his carpus in your icy fist,
But warm your fingers ere you take the wrist.
If the poor victim needs must be percussed,
Don't make an anvil of his aching bust;
(Doctors exist within a hundred miles
Who thump a thorax as they'd hammer piles
If you must listen to his doubtful chest,
Catch the essentials, and ignore the rest.
Spare him; the sufferer wants of you and art
A track to steer by, not a finished chart.
So of your questions: don't in mercy try
To pump your patient absolutely dry;
He's not a mollusk squirming in a dish,
You're not Agassiz; and he's not a fish.

And last, not least, in each perplexing case,
Learn the sweet magic of a cheerful face;
Not always smiling, but at least serene,
When grief and anguish cloud the anxious scene.
Each look, each movement, every word and tone,
Should tell your patient you are all his own;
Not the mere artist, purchased to attend,
But the warm, ready, self-forgetting friend,
Whose genial visit in itself combines
The best of cordials, tonics, anodynes.

Such is the _visit_ that from day to day
Sheds o'er my chamber its benignant ray.
I give his health, who never cared to claim
Her babbling homage from the tongue of Fame;
Unmoved by praise, he stands by all confest,
The truest, noblest, wisest, kindest, best.


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Poem Submitted: Tuesday, April 6, 2010



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