For The Meeting Of The National Sanitary Association 1860

A poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes

What makes the Healing Art divine?
The bitter drug we buy and sell,
The brands that scorch, the blades that shine,
The scars we leave, the "cures" we tell?

Are these thy glories, holiest Art, -
The trophies that adorn thee best, -
Or but thy triumph's meanest part, -
Where mortal weakness stands confessed?

We take the arms that Heaven supplies
For Life's long battle with Disease,
Taught by our various need to prize
Our frailest weapons, even these.

But ah! when Science drops her shield -
Its peaceful shelter proved in vain -
And bares her snow-white arm to wield
The sad, stern ministry of pain;

When shuddering o'er the fount of life,
She folds her heaven-anointed wings,
To lift unmoved the glittering knife
That searches all its crimson springs;

When, faithful to her ancient lore,
She thrusts aside her fragrant balm
For blistering juice, or cankering ore,
And tames them till they cure or calm;

When in her gracious hand are seen
The dregs and scum of earth and seas,
Her kindness counting all things clean
That lend the sighing sufferer ease;

Though on the field that Death has won,
She save some stragglers in retreat; -
These single acts of mercy done
Are but confessions of defeat.

What though our tempered poisons save
Some wrecks of life from aches and ails;
Those grand specifics Nature gave
Were never poised by weights or scales!

God lent his creatures light and air,
And waters open to the skies;
Man locks him in a stifling lair,
And wonders why his brother dies!

In vain our pitying tears are shed,
In vain we rear the sheltering pile
Where Art weeds out from bed to bed
The plagues we planted by the mile!

Be that the glory of the past;
With these our sacred toils begin
So flies in tatters from its mast
The yellow flag of sloth and sin,

And lo! the starry folds reveal
The blazoned truth we hold so dear
To guard is better than to heal, -
The shield is nobler than the spear!

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