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04 January 2012

Surgeons Must Be Very Careful

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!
                                                                    F156 (1860) J108

In one of her most clever and incisive poems, Dickinson uses standard ballad structure (alternating tetrameter and trimeter) with a very regulated trochaic meter. It makes the poem memorable – and in fact I find myself repeating this little poem now and again just for fun.
         Part of the fun of the poem is the notion of Life as the “Culprit,” beating beneath the surgeon's knife. Normally we’d think the culprit would be the disease, bullet or tumor that the doctor must incise, so the image is startling.  
The Agnew Clinic, by Thomas Eakins, 1889

          One might also see the poem as a metaphor for other operations. In Dickinson's case, there were plenty of "surgeons" willing to take the knife to her poetry: both Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Samuel Bowles – men she revered and sent poems to – not only encouraged her to smooth out her diction and rhyme schemes, but actually edited her poetry to that end. In retrospect, and as Dickinson suspected, they took a bit of life out of the poems in doing so.



  1. I go back and forth many times over but man this one is just too damn clever! My favorite!

  2. Medical metaphors in ‘Surgeons must be very careful’ (F156, 1860) barely hide ED’s real purpose, an editorial admonition meant for Susan Gilbert Dickinson. I say this because ED had first met Bowles in 1858 when he visited Susan and Austin, and he admitted he had never seriously considered poetry until he met the three Dickinsons. As for Higginson, ED’s first communication with him was an April 1862 letter responding to his 1861 article in The Atlantic Monthly.

    We have no smoking-gun evidence that ED sent Susan a penciled draft of ‘Surgeons must be very careful’, but absence of evidence proves nothing. Given the known 250 poems ED sent to Susan, usually in a penciled draft, it’s likely she did the same with F156.

    Whether Sue honored ED’s request is likely. For example, in 1861 ED asked Sue to critique “one of Emily's best early poems, ‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers’, which had several versions. Emily's first attempt had not pleased Sue. But when she supplied a wholly new second stanza, Sue replied that she saw the first as adequate alone and without equal: "You never made a peer for that verse ... " (L I, p. 379)” (Mudge, J.M. 1978. Emily Dickinson and "Sister Sue". Prairie Schooner 52(1):90-108).