The poem

James Robertson


Hippocrates in Queen Street


I mean that two-faced demon, Time: Time the great healer,
Time the torturer too, Time who both chokes and knits,
rots and repairs, is slow or sudden, merciful or cruel,
but who never stops subtracting from our days and years;
Time the unrepentant, all-consuming thief. He ate me up
and each of you he will in turn select and take,
deprived at last of every last defence you thought you had,
whether of faith or science, philosophy or art −
to all of which medicine owes some debt.

So, there’s a choice: resign yourselves to fate −
an even worse physician than the gods −
or take this mortal state into your own hands
and make the best of it. That, I hold, is what the best of doctors do:
recognise each patient as a whole and complex being,
a rich, imperfect mix of mind and body
and − for want of a less contentious term −
of soul, and build their care on this reality.
Your patient is your mirror: therefore, look with sympathy;
work with the faults and flaws, see the stories in the scars,
replace what worn-out parts can be replaced and,
when remedy cannot be found, in the last resort be kind.
The world needs all the kindness it can get.
Our time is short. The snake casts off its skin;
the cockerel calls up the morning light;
we glimpse the centaur leaping in the wood;
we work, we live, we love; we say good night.

But not just yet. Although I will now disappear,
life is what you are for, and why you are here.


The above is an excerpt from a poem presented to Professor Derek Bell (President of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, 2014-2020) on the occasion of his Triennial dinner on 21 February 2020. It was first published in the Journal of the  Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, Vol. 50, Issue 2: 2020. Part of the above excerpt was printed in Intensive Care, the book by Gavin Francis, who is the subject of this month’s Perspective Interview.


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