I know of very few poems on the subject of physical pain. Perhaps this is because there is nothing much useful to be said about it; perhaps we just don’t have the vocabulary. After all, don’t you just hate the modern fad whereby health services ask you to ‘rate your pain’? So you go to consult about something irksome but fairly minor on the scale of human affliction, say acute sciatica, and you get: ‘And how do you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?’ What do you say? A truthful ‘Well, compared with being burned alive or torn to pieces on the rack or dying of strangury, about 0.01’ seems likely to elicit a response of ‘So, why are you wasting my time?’, whereas a confident ‘Oh, at least six’ surely marks you out as a big wuss with a very limited imagination.
So all credit to Robert Graves in this poem for managing to convey something about the nature of the beast in his usual distinctive way.
Surgical Ward: Men
Something occurred after the operation
To scare the surgeons (though no fault of theirs),
Whose reassurance did not fool me long.
Beyond the shy, concerned faces of nurses
A single white-hot eye, focusing on me,
Forced sweat in rivers down from scalp to belly.
I whistled, gasped or sang, with blanching knuckles
Clutched at my bed-grip almost till it cracked:
Too proud, still, to let loose Bedlamite screeches
And bring the charge-nurse scuttling down the aisle
With morphia-needle levelled….
Lady Morphia –
Her scorpion kiss and dark gyrating dreams –
She in mistrust of whom I dared out-dare,
Two minutes longer than seemed possible,
Pain, that unpurposed, matchless elemental
Stronger than fear or grief, stranger than love.