…and poems about them, in the British Medical Journal (subscription required):
In 1968, the year in which I became a medical student, a rather beautiful anthology of poetry titled Poems from Hospital was published. It was edited by a husband and wife who were teachers, Jean and Howard Sergeant; the latter was also a critic and poet. It contains poems by such famous poets as Dylan Thomas, W H Auden, T S Eliot, John Betjeman, Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin, but also many by poets of whom I, at any rate, had not heard.The subject matter is, naturally enough, illness, death, pain, distress, compassion, indifference to suffering, and alleviation. Strangely enough the overall effect is not dispiriting, but one of consolation, even though “The ambulance will always call again,” to quote the opening line of a poem by Alasdair Aston, “And the saved man goes home to die, of health” to quote the last line of another by James Reeves.….…many of the poems had a resonance for me, emotion recalled in tranquillity, for example, Robert Gittings’s The Middle-Aged Man. In this poem, the poet himself is: “Neighboured in plywood cubicles [where] we stripped, / Put on identical clothes, the linen sheet / Slit for its head-hole like an Egyptian priest . . .”He and the middle aged man (the same age as the poet) are waiting for an x ray and talk of general subjects—the cricket club in the small town where they lived, for example. Then: “Only once, at a mention / Half-joking, clumsy in our predicament, / He spoke of what had brought him into hospital: / ‘I’ve left it too late,’ he said.”The poet learns two weeks later that he has died. I was reminded of an elderly acquaintance of mine whom I met by chance in my hospital, he was almost orange with jaundice. He knew that he was dying, and he knew that I knew that he was dying. “We’ll just have to do the best we can,” he said, half joking. In two weeks he was dead. Such noble stoicism persists; I hope one day it will be mine.