‘Lines to Dr Walter Birk on his Retiring from General Practice’, by W.H. Auden

When you first arrived in Kirchstetten, trains had
long been taken for granted, but electric
light was still a surprise and as yet no one
had seen a tractor.

To-day, after forty-five years, as you leave us,
autobahns are a must, midwives are banished
and village doctors become museum pieces
like the horse-and-buggy.

I regret. The specialist has his function, but
to him we are merely banal examples of
what he knows all about. The healer I have faith in is
someone I’ve gossipped

and drunk with before I call him to touch me,
someone who admits how easy it is to misconsider
what our bodies are trying to say, for each one
talks in a local

dialect of its own which can alter during
its lifetime: so children run high fevers on
slight provocation, while the organs of old men
suffer in silence.

When summer plumps again, our usual sparrows
will phip in the eaves of the patulous chestnuts
near your old home, but none will ask: “Is Dr.
Birk around to hear me?”

For nothing can happen to birds that has not
happened before: we though are beasts with a sense of
real occasion, of beginnings and endings,
which is the reason

we like to keep our clocks punctual, as Nature’s
never is. Seasons she has, but no Calendar:
thus every year the strawberries ripen
and the autumn-crocus

flares into blossom on unpredictable
dates. Such a Schlamperei cannot be allowed an
historian: with us it’s a point of honor
to keep our birth-days

and wedding-days, to rejoice or to mourn, on
the right one. Henceforth the First of October
shall be special for you and us, as the Once when
you quit the Public

Realm to private your ways and snudge in a quiet
you so deserve. Farewell, and do not wince at
our sick world: it is genuine in age to be
happily selfish.

– Wystan Hugh Auden, ‘Lines to Dr Walter Birk on his Retiring from General Practice’, in Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1972), 10–11.

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