Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE SURGEON'S WARNING, by ROBERT SOUTHEY



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THE SURGEON'S WARNING, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The doctor whisper'd to the nurse
Last Line: Was never to mortal known.
Subject(s): Funerals; Future Life; Guilt; Physicians; Soul; Surgery; Burials; Retribution; Eternity; After Life; Doctors


THE doctor whisper'd to the nurse,
And the surgeon knew what he said,
And he grew pale at the doctor's tale,
And trembled in his sick bed.

Now fetch me my brethren, and fetch them with speed,
The surgeon affrighted said,
The parson and the undertaker,
Let them hasten, or I shall be dead.

The parson and the undertaker
They hastily came complying,
And the surgeon's apprentices ran up stairs
When they heard that their master was dying.

The 'prentices all they enter'd the room,
By one, by two, by three,
With a sly grin came Joseph in,
First of the company.

The surgeon swore, as they enter'd his door,—
'Twas fearful his oaths to hear,—
Now send these scoundrels to the devil,
For God's sake, my brethren dear.

He foam'd at the mouth with the rage he felt,
And he wrinkled his black eyebrow,
That rascal Joe would be at me, I know,
But, zounds, let him spare me now.

Then out they sent the 'prentices,
The fit it left him weak;
He look'd at his brothers with ghastly eyes,
And faintly struggled to speak.

All kinds of carcasses I have cut up,
And the judgment now must be!
But, brothers, I took care of you,
So pray take care of me!

I have made candles of infants' fat,
The sextons have been my slaves,
I have bottled babes unborn, and dried
Hearts and livers from rifled graves.

And my 'prentices will surely come,
And carve me bone from bone,
And I, who have rifled the dead man's grave,
Shall never rest in my own.

Bury me in lead when I am dead,
My brethren, I entreat,
And see the coffin weigh'd, I beg,
Lest the plumber should be a cheat.

And let it be solder'd closely down,
Strong as strong can be, I implore,
And put it in a patent coffin,
That I may rise no more.

If they carry me off in the patent coffin,
Their labour will be in vain,
Let the undertaker see it bought of the maker,
Who lives in St. Martin's lane.

And bury me in my brother's church,
For that will safer be,
And, I implore, lock the church door,
And pray take care of the key.

And all night long let three stout men
The vestry watch within,
To each man give a gallon of beer
And a keg of Holland's gin;

Powder, and ball, and blunderbuss,
To save me if he can,
And eke five guineas if he shoot
A resurrection man.

And let them watch me for three weeks,
My wretched corpse to save,
For then I think that I may stink
Enough to rest in my grave.

The surgeon laid him down in his bed,
His eyes grew deadly dim,
Short came his breath, and the struggle of death
Distorted every limb.

They put him in lead when he was dead,
And shrouded up so neat,
And they the leaden coffin weigh,
Lest the plumber should be a cheat.

They had it solder'd closely down,
And examined it o'er and o'er,
And they put it in a patent coffin,
That he might rise no more.

For to carry him off in a patent coffin,
Would, they thought, be but labour in vain,
So the undertaker saw it bought of the maker
Who lives by St. Martin's lane.

In his brother's church they buried him,
That safer he might be,
They lock'd the door, and would not trust
The sexton with the key.

And three men in the vestry watch,
To save him if they can,
And should he come there to shoot they swear
A resurrection man.

And the first night, by lantern light,
Through the churchyard as they went,
A guinea of gold the sexton showed
That Mr. Joseph sent.

But conscience was tough, it was not enough,
And their honesty never swerved,
And they bade him go, with Mister Joe,
To the devil as he deserved.

So all night long, by the vestry fire,
They quaff'd their gin and ale,
And they did drink, as you may think,
And told full many a tale.

The second night, by lantern light,
Through the churchyard as they went,
He whisper'd anew, and show'd them two
That Mister Joseph sent.

The guineas were bright, and attracted their sight,
They look'd so heavy and new,
And their fingers itch'd as they were bewitch'd,
And they knew not what to do.

But they waver'd not long, for conscience was strong,
And they thought they might get more;
And they refused the gold, but not
So rudely as before.

So all night long, by the vestry fire,
They quaff'd their gin and ale,
And they did drink, as you may think,
And told full many a tale.

The third night, as by lantern light
Through the churchyard as they went,
He bade them see, and show'd them three
That Mister Joseph sent.

They look'd askance with greedy glance,
The guineas they shone bright,
For the sexton on the yellow gold
Let fall his lantern light.

And he look'd sly, with his roguish eye,
And gave a well-timed wink,
And they could not stand the sound in his hand,
For he made the guineas chink.

And conscience late, that had such weight,
All in a moment fails,
For well they knew, that it was true
A dead man told no tales.

And they gave all their powder and ball,
And took the gold so bright,
And they drank their beer and made good cheer
Till now it was midnight.

Then, though the key of the church door
Was left with the parson his brother,
It opened at the sexton's touch,—
Because he had another.

And in they go with that villain Joe,
To fetch the body by night,
And all the church look'd dismally,
By his dark-lantern light.

They laid the pick-axe to the stones,
And they moved them soon asunder,
They shovell'd away the hard-prest clay,
And came to the coffin under.

They burst the patent coffin first,
And they cut through the lead,
And they laugh'd aloud when they saw the shroud
Because they had got at the dead.

And they allow'd the sexton the shroud,
And they put the coffin back,
And nose and knees they then did squeeze
The surgeon in a sack.

The watchmen as they past along
Full four yards off could smell,
And a curse bestow'd upon the load
So disagreeable.

So they carried the sack a-pick-a-back,
And they carved him bone from bone;
But what became of the surgeon's soul
Was never to mortal known.





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