Death saw, and came without delay:
Enters the room, begins the chat
With, “Doctor, why so thoughtful, pray?”’
‘Death and the Doctor’David Garrick
Even today, the name of David Garrick has a glamorous magic: perhaps the most famous actor of the eighteenth-century, the dramatic painting of him in the role of Richard III is for many (myself included) one of the great highlights of a visit to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. As an actor, he was famed for the bewitching power of his voice, and his ability to portray a broad register of different emotions on-stage, but he was also a writer of both plays and poetry. Sometimes the latter would take the form of poetic prologues or epilogues to be spoken before or after a theatrical performance by one of the actors in character. Today’s offering is simply a standalone narrative, but it is also a splendid example of Garrick’s sly, witty brilliance.
The subtitle provides all the background the reader needs: this is a defensive poem, ‘Occasioned by a Physician’s lampooning a Friend of the Author’. If you’ve never encountered this term before, to lampoon is to ‘Publicly criticize (someone or something) by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm’ (the definition is from Oxford Dictionaries, the free version!). Call me a sentimentalist if you will, but I think it’s rather sweetly loyal of him to have gone to so much effort to support his friend as the construction of a whole poetic narrative! Even the title is a bit of a clever put-down, since in saying ‘Death and the Doctor’ Garrick places gives Death the priority by placing it first in the sentence. As the great Sir Ian McKellen said recently in a programme to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare, who would want to play Romeo if the play was called ‘Juliet and Romeo’?
In the poem, the scene starts somewhat theatrically with the doctor sitting and thoughtfully ‘musing’; Death notices this, and hurries at once to investigate. At first, the doctor is a bit startled (who wouldn’t be if the grim reaper suddenly appeared in the living room wanting a chat?). He ‘started from his place’ in a manner that again seems to evoke the spirit of theatrical performance. Perhaps more surprisingly, the pair soon ‘more familiar grew’ and fall into conversation about such a conventional everyday topic as the state of the Doctor’s practice. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable talking shop with Death; yet in a sense this is a subtle way of beginning to discredit the anonymous Doctor, by suggesting he has a rather mercantile and desensitised personality. A few minutes after meeting Death, the ultimate arch-enemy of humanity, he is gloomily complaining that ‘trade was low and friends were few’.
Death of course takes a rather more practical view. ‘Away with fear’ he cries, advising the doctor to at once ‘mend [his] trade’ for, he says, ‘we both are losers if you fail’. There is no indication that the Doctor sees anything odd about this statement, though the reader will notice the huge irony in the idea that a lack of business for a doctor would mean Death losing out on victims. The business of Doctors should, after all, be to bring people back to health. Though the joke about doctors killing off their patients was by no means new at this point, Garrick makes it fresh through the argument that follows. For it is not through conventional medical treatment that Death suggests the Doctor would be able to furnish him with a steady supply of victims. Rather, it is through the poisonous nature of his satirical scribbling. ‘Go write’, suggests Death, disregarding the quality of such compositions as he claims that it is ‘No matter, whether smart, or true’. Advocating the dispersion of these writings among the doctor’s friends, Death suggests that this will inevitably make all readers ‘grow sick’ and dependent upon the doctor’s (somewhat dubious) services. The final joke comes as Death claims that this will help them both, for this way he says ‘you are sure to have your fees, / And I am sure to have your friends.”’ Splendid, isn’t it? Without directly insulting the doctor at all, Garrick neatly manages to completely demolish the physician’s whole credibility. Whoever this man is, he is no longer to be regarded as a serious medical professional, but rather as a money-minded charlatan, ready to stoop to any low trick to conjure business for himself. The true wit here is not the doctor with his character-assassinating writings, but Garrick.Happy reading!!
You can find this poem:
(A wonderful new site loaded with free editions of obscure eighteenth-century verse. Go on, you know you want to look…)
More about the lovely David Garrick:
Hogarth’s ‘Garrick as Richard III’ is one of the iconic masterpieces of 18th century art, and an absolute must-see!! And while you’re at it, why not visit the Walker and come see all the other lovely 18th century paintings at one of the absolute best art galleries in the country?)
This could be the most interesting thing you read all day!!)
Looks like it could be a good day out folks…)
(Fab image of, and info about, the memorial to Garrick in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey!)