The Art of Healing

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. ‘Healing,’
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 are,
and, even when most
difficult, condign
of our biassed affection
and objective praise.


W. H. Auden wrote this poem as a memorial to his own physician, David Protetch, M.D.  I think it is worth noting that Auden refered to him as David, not Dr. Protetch.  Auden describes the relationship he had with David and the human characteristics of his doctor.  He points out that David had his own physical ailments and problems in life but that he was able to dissociate from these issues and play his role of healing others.  He was more than just a physician.  He was Auden’s consultant and confidant. 

Auden expresses that David was “what all doctors should be, but few are.”  So why is there a disconnect? Why can’t physicians be everything we want them to be.  Maybe that’s just it.  We expect so much out of our physicians-to spend nearly a decade of their lives learning everything there is about medicine, to recognize exactly what is wrong with us after a short meeting, to be compassionate and understanding, to love, to be passionate about medicine and healing, to give, to serve, to be ours.  While I agree with Auden that all physicians should possess these traits-passion and humane healing are not facultative- we must also recognize that physicians are just one of us as well.  We want them to show their human side in sympathy but to reject it in unflawed healing.  These disparities may cause tensions for the physicians. 

As an aspiring physician, I love the sciences, I’m passionate about healing, I’m willing to give of all of myself, I’m ready to serve.  I realize that this is a big undertaking, though.  There are high expectations for physicians but the reward and art of healing outweigh the sacrifices made.


About vflynn

I am a Senior at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri aspiring to be a physician. Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, I came to Missouri to experience another region of the U.S. and in the past three years have gained strong ties to the community. In this blog, I will focus on reflections of medical visions in literature and contribute insights into contemporary issues and thought.
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One Response to The Art of Healing

  1. Maureen Tuthill says:

    Hopefully, you will have some patients like Auden who are aware of your own humanity. When Hippocrates says that the patient and physician should join together to combat the disease, maybe part of that dynamic is the patient validating and supporting the physician. We didn’t talk much about that in our class discussions, did we?

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