Poetry Wednesday: Gaudeamus Igitur

What with one thing and another,* my thoughts this week turned to medical poetry. I didn’t have any on hand,** so I googled.

The first thing I found was “Poetry Ward,” a brilliant article written about five years ago by Dr. Danielle Ofri, who uses poetry to help both her patients and her medical students.

Poetry isn’t frivolous y’all.  It’s a vital connection.

Near the end of the article, I found a reference to “Gaudeamus Igitur,” a poem written by John Stone for the 1982 commencement ceremony of Emory University’s School of Medicine. The few lines Dr. Ofri quoted were so evocative, I had to find the rest.

John Stone was not only a respected poet, but a cardiologist who obviously had a deep understanding of the emotional complexities and paradoxes of practicing medicine. But I believe this poem will also resonate with any human being who accepts the responsibility for the welfare of another human being, whether as a healer, guardian, or caregiver.

The experience, as Dr. Stone explains, is full of joy and terror, brilliance and stupidity, wisdom and doubt, victory and tragedy—sometimes all at once:

Dr. Stone died in 2008 of cancer. I find myself hoping that his attending physician knew this poem.

During the course of my research, I found two fascinating things that I stuck here at the end so they wouldn’t interfere with your reading:

“Gaudeamus igitur,”or “So Let Us Rejoice” is the common name given to a popular European commencement hymn.  The formal title is “De Brevitate Vitae,” or “On the Shortness of Life,” which in my opinion couldn’t be more fitting for this poem.***

The explanation behind the “Christopher Smart’s cat” reference is flat-out whoa^:  Stone borrowed the form of his poem from “Jubilate Agno,” which was written by Christopher Smart while he was incarcerated in a mental asylum, with only his cat Jeoffrey for companionship.

Layers upon layers.


*I spent the morning taking the requisite Basic Life Support training so I can be a CPR-AED trainer for the city.  This is one of the most important things I will ever do.

**Except for that one about a dentist and a crocodile by Shel Silverstein, which wasn’t quite the thing.

***What may or may not be as fitting, depending on your interpretation,  is that the lyrics to the original song poke affectionate fun at the academic  life.  According to my research, it was used as a carpe diem drinking song in the 18th century.

^Your whoa may vary.