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Poetry and Medicine XVII: Alexander Pope

Advice to those who criticise the work of others.

Alexander Pope was 23 years old and suffering from tuberculosis in his spine when he wrote, An Essay on Criticism, in the 18th Century. As the title suggests, this very long poem written in rhyming couplets contains many ideas and insights on providing criticism. Although Pope had literary criticism in mind, his advice can be applied to criticism in other fields, including medical practice.

I have selected a few biopsies from this long poetic essay. You will probably recognise some of the lines, which have become popular sayings, although the language sounds rather old fashioned to us today. It can take some effort to translate into today’s language, but is worth doing.

From An Essay on Criticism

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.

Be thou the first true merit to befriend;

His praise is lost, who stays till all commend.

Good nature and good sense must ever join;

To err is human; to forgive, divine.

Be silent always when you doubt your sense;

And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:

But you, with pleasure own your errors past,

And make each day a critic on the last.

In Greek mythology, the Pierian Spring referred to here was sacred to the Muses who were thought to inspire creativity. Pope urges critics to drink deep there, or read widely before offering their opinions. Knowing only a little about the subject can make one’s critique seem to come from an intoxicated brain, while drinking more deeply from the spring of inspiration will sober our thinking (paradoxically, if compared to drinking alcohol).

In the second excerpt above, Pope urges critics to not hold back on giving praise where there is true merit. By waiting to first see if others are going to make positive comments, your opinion is likely to be given last and be lost.

Be good natured and sensible, says Pope. Recognise that to err, to sometimes make mistakes, goes with being human. The ability to forgive the errors of others is a more divine or godly attribute.

To err is human. Having recently been through an HDC inquiry following a patient complaint, I’m reminded of how inevitable it is that, no matter how carefully we practise, an oversight or misunderstanding will occur from time to time. Yet the expectations of society and the medico-legal environment in which we work seem to demand an impossibly high standard of perfection. In a sense, the zero-tolerance of isolated errors by well-intentioned doctors is a denial of our humanity.

Not just in medical care, but in many aspects of modern life we are being encouraged to complain if we are unhappy about an outcome. Are we losing perspective on the healing power of forgiveness?

In the last four lines that I’ve selected from Pope’s poem, we are encouraged to be generous where there is doubt, and to avoid being dogmatic in our criticism even when we feel sure we are right. To reflect on each day, and when we are at fault, to cheerfully own up to our mistakes.

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