Not long ago I was a judge, one of three, in an annual poetry competition, the Hippocrates Prize. It was the first time in my life that I had been the judge in a competition of any kind and I found it surprisingly difficult, even painful. Normally decisive, if not necessarily judicious, in my literary judgment, I became timid, hesitant, fearful, and vacillating. It was an interesting and salutary experience.

Unusually something of practical importance rested on my judgment (conjointly with that of the other judges, of course): The winner in each of two categories, the first for a poem of fewer than fifty lines written by anyone who had ever worked in the National Health Service in Great Britain, the second for a poem written in English by anyone who worked in healthcare anywhere in the world, would receive a prize worth slightly in excess of $7,500. The winners would be elated, but the losers would be correspondingly disappointed and even downcast, not so much by the dashing of their financial hopes as by the lack of recognition or rejection of their work. I guessed that they would recover quickly enough from their chagrin, however. Their self-esteem would be equal to the task: Lord, what fools these judges be! At any rate, that was what I told myself when a book of mine came near to winning a prize but another was preferred.

I was confronted by my own lack of poetic education and knowledge. I can open an anthology and recognize a good line easily enough when it has been chosen for me, but that is not at all the same thing as recognizing a good poem de novo, as it were, by the light of one’s own unaided judgment.

Thus I opened an anthology taken from my shelves at random and read lines that I was made to learn by heart when I was twelve years old:

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

And I can quite see why I was made to learn them.

But there is a but. The anthology from which I have taken those lines (which come from Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang”) is Selections from Modern Poets Made by J. C. Squire, dated 1921. Squire was something of a poet himself, the first poet in fact to reprehend the Great War (though he did not fight in it), and an eminent literary critic; he was hostile to T. S. Eliot’s modernism and did not include “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in his anthology. He did, however, devote thirteen pages of the book to Lascelles Abercrombie, a poet more or less forgotten today except perhaps for his association with Rupert Brooke, and whose lyricism has an unmistakably faded and old-fashioned, not to say antiquated, feel: “Come up, dear chosen morning, come,/ Blessing the air with light,/ And bid the sky repent of being dark . . . ”

Abercrombie’s reflection that the contemplation of beauty lies “between joy and pain” seems to me just and profound, or at any rate consonant with my own psychology, which I take to be the same thing: I can seldom encounter beauty without an oscillation between joy in the beauty itself and pain at its fleetingness and a nagging awareness that the ugly will soon supervene to reclaim its rights. But Abercrombie is forgotten and Eliot is remembered.

Well, if J. C. Squire could miss T. S. Eliot, I could do something similar myself, and was afraid not so much of retarding the career or renown of a new Eliot (talent, after all, will make its way) as of subsequently looking ridiculous, the man who did not recognize genius when it stared him in the face. The presence of a professional poet on the panel of judges—Jo Shapcott—would not necessarily save me from this bêtise, for she could be outvoted by a combination of the other unpoetic judge and me.

One of the problems for a novice judge is to know how far to take extra-poetic considerations into account, indeed to know what they actually are, especially in an age of free verse. There are no guidelines laid down, as in (for example) the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, and where almost any string of words could be considered verse, chopped up the right way:

There are no guidelines laid down,
As in (for example)
The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis,
And where almost any string of words
Could be considered verse,
Chopped up the right way.

We rejected a good poem, however, liked by all of us, because I—the only doctor among us—said that it was clinically inaccurate. We decided that clinical inaccuracy was a disqualifying characteristic in a prize named after Hippocrates, who was, after all, one of the finest observers of clinical conditions who ever lived. But at to other exclusionary criteria, let alone the criteria of positive merit, we discussed them not.

We had to whittle down about 200 poems, already whittled down for us from 1,000 entries by preliminary judges, to first, second, and third in each category, as well as twenty commended poems. There was some agreement and overlap between us, but also some disagreement. We had to argue the case for the poems we liked and then come to some compromise. In the end, we adopted a points system in which, for example, two second choices outweighed one first choice. The process, no doubt inevitably, was not very poetical; in the end it seemed almost as much like pork barrel politics (with the corruption removed, for we were completely blinded as to the identity of the authors) as literary judgment made manifest.

There was one poem that I liked that appealed far less to the others. Though blinded to the identity of the authors, I saw at once that it was by a doctor (and not, say, by a hospital administrator), which predisposed me in its favor. There is, after all, such a thing as professional solidarity.

The poem was called “Two Bound Copies of the Lancet 1886.” It was (I subsequently learned) by a retired general practitioner in Leicestershire called Dr. Nicholas Leach, who provided an explanation of the genesis of his poem:

A thoughtful patient of mine, who worked as a dustman, noticed the two leather volumes put out with the bins and wondered if his GP might be interested in them. He brought them as a gift at his next consultation. I was thrilled, and when I opened a page at random and read of Koch’s Microbial Theory, the poem just had to be written.

Dr. Leach was evidently a man after my own heart, for like him I delight in the contents of old books that I come across unexpectedly or quite by chance. This, I need hardly say, is not the scholar’s way of investigating the world, but that of the general reader of it; of the man who will never discover anything to the great benefit of mankind or develop any overarching metaphysical system, but who finds everything of interest, and who instinctively feels that “The truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.”

I too have looked into old medical journals and found them moving. Dr. Leach, who is (I suspect somewhat reluctantly) of the computer age, describes the volumes and their contents well:

Biblical, fat with self importance,
titled in faded gold,
calf-bound, heavy with learning . . .
Thick, black type marches in rigid columns,
prose stiff as shirtfronts,
phlegmatic, frock coated phrases . . .

There is nothing in this description, accurate as it is, of the condescension of a later age towards an earlier; of that mockery that comes so easily to the lips or pens of those who take their current state of enlightenment, attributed by them to their own personal cleverness, as the acme of wisdom, as the final revelation of the truth. For Dr. Leach continues that the frock-coated phrases are the “assertion of the learned who yet know nothing . . .”

This is not the egoistic assertiveness of those who know nothing because of their own laziness, wilful ignorance, or intellectual incompetence. Far from it, it is of those who know nothing simply because the state of their science (by comparison with ours) is undeveloped—as ours will no doubt seem to future generations. Indeed, this line in the poem might be read as a call to perpetual modesty. For even the most learned of us yet knows nothing by comparison with all that might be known and by comparison with the great ocean of truth that forever lies all undiscovered before us.

The learned who yet know nothing spend their lives “battling poverty and pain/ with only laudanum, chloroform, statistics.” These lines are instinct not with disdain for the primitive means employed by these men, but with respect, with compassion, for them, one might almost say with filial piety. And yet the lines also hint at the permanent tendency of human problems to outrun the knowledge available to solve them. This is because man is a problem-creating animal.

Yet the author of the poem is no nihilist or epistemological relativist. One of the volumes of The Lancet falls open at a page that describes a setback to Robert Koch’s bacillary theories:

I want to shout “Keep at it Herr Koch,
don’t let them put you down, you’re right.
With Pasteur, Lister, Fleming, you will sire
a golden age!”

Progress is real but not final; there can be a golden age (for example, of bacteriology and the overcoming of infectious disease) without there being a utopia or a golden age tout court. To think that ignorance decreases with the advance of knowledge is to mistake the nature of infinity: for infinity minus one is still infinity.

At the end of the poem the author describes himself as:

Voyeur at the glass of a gas lit study,
peering into the young mind
of my great grandfather.

It doesn’t matter whether the great-grandfather is literal or figurative, an actual or merely professional ancestor (though nowadays we are hostile to the very idea of medical dynasties as being inimical to equality of opportunity, no matter what role they may in practice have played in the medical civilization of the past). Here in these lines is evidence of a real attempt, all too rare, to enter imaginatively into a mind other than the author’s own, in this instance to try to grasp what it was like to practice medicine under conditions when even the learned knew nothing, infectious disease was rampant, and the path to increased knowledge was far less assured than it is today. The author does not dismiss Victorian doctors as mere charlatans or quacks because they could do so little and knew even less, or snigger at what from our current point of view seem their idiocies: for it was precisely from the pages of biblical volumes such as these, “fat with self importance,” and not from anywhere else, that astonishingly rapid progress emerged, a fact inexplicable if the writers of those volumes were mere charlatans or quacks. Dr. Leach’s view of the history of medicine is the same as mine: A modified Whig interpretation, according to which that history is not only the history of progress, but a history in which progress did take place, moreover within a culture of earnest and rational if sometimes misplaced endeavor without which it would not have taken place. The doctor-poet will have (by implication) no truck with the organizing principle of Foucault, that the history of medicine, as of everything else, is principally that of the search for power, an organizing principle that is false even where such a search actually took place. Good men always have wanted to free mankind of disease, but it was no straightforward matter to obtain the necessary knowledge to do it even partially.

But how should any or all of this affect the valuation of a poem as poetry? It is a coincidence, after all, that I am interested in the history, and also the historiography, of medicine, as is Dr. Leach, and am therefore specially moved by his lines, but can—ought—a poet rely on a coincidence with his readers of somewhat recherché interests? At whom, if at anyone, should he aim his verses? At everyone, at the many, at the quite-a-few, at the cognoscenti? Should he confine himself to universal human experience and feeling (if such exists), or to the particular only in so far as it is a manifestation of the universal, or to the particular precisely because it is the particular? Or should the poet not aim at anyone, hoping only that his self-expression will please someone? That way self-indulgence lies, but I doubt that any rules can be laid down.

Of the technical proficiency or otherwise of Dr. Leach’s lines I am unable to speak. I am strong on content but weak on form. Yet still I made a plea—successfully—for Dr. Leach’s poem to be included among the commended.

After all, even Sassoon’s lines, quoted above, assume a knowledge of historical context, and could hardly move the reader without it. If you knew nothing of the conditions of the First World War, why would you suppose that the singing would never be done? Alas, we are fast moving to an age when many people know that there was a First World War at best only as a logical deduction from the fact that there was a Second. So much, I suppose, for the universality of literature. But there is no poetry without a common culture.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 6, on page 77
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