Poem of the day

The Surgeon’s Warning
by Robert Southey (1774-1843)

The Doctor whispered to the Nurse
      And the Surgeon knew what he said,
And he grew pale at the Doctor’s tale
      And trembled in his sick bed.

Now fetch me my brethren and fetch them with speed
      The Surgeon affrighted said,
The Parson and the Undertaker,
      Let them hasten or I shall be dead.

The Parson and the Undertaker
      They hastily came complying,
And the Surgeon’s Prentices ran up stairs
      When they heard that their master was dying.

The Prentices all they entered the room
      By one, by two, by three,
With a sly grin came Joseph in,
      First of the company.

The Surgeon swore as they enter’d his door,
      ’Twas fearful his oaths to hear,—
Now send these scoundrels to the Devil,
      For God’s sake my brethren dear.

He foam’d at the mouth with the rage he felt
      And he wrinkled his black eye-brow,
That rascal Joe would be at me I know,
      But zounds let him spare me now.

Then out they sent the Prentices,
      The fit it left him weak,
He look’d at his brothers with ghastly eyes,
      And faintly struggled to speak.

All kinds of carcasses I have cut up,
      And the judgment now must be—
But brothers I took care of you,
      So pray take care of me!

I have made candles of infants fat
      The Sextons have been my slaves,
I have bottled babes unborn, and dried
      Hearts and livers from rifled graves.

And my Prentices now will surely come
      And carve me bone from bone,
And I who have rifled the dead man’s grave
      Shall never have rest in my own.

Bury me in lead when I am dead,
      My brethren I intreat,
And see the coffin weigh’d I beg
      Lest the Plumber should be a cheat.

And let it be solder’d closely down
      Strong as strong can be I implore,
And put it in a patent coffin,
      That I may rise no more.

If they carry me off in the patent coffin
      Their labour will be in vain,
Let the Undertaker see it bought of the maker
      Who lives by St. Martin’s lane.

And bury me in my brother’s church
      For that will safer be,
And I implore lock the church door
      And pray take care of the key.

And all night long let three stout men
      The vestry watch within,
To each man give a gallon of beer
      And a keg of Holland’s gin;

Powder and ball and blunder-buss
      To save me if he can,
And eke five guineas if he shoot
      A resurrection man.

And let them watch me for three weeks
      My wretched corpse to save,
For then I think that I may stink
      Enough to rest in my grave.


he Surgeon laid him down in his bed,
      His eyes grew deadly dim,
Short came his breath and the struggle of death
      Distorted every limb.

They put him in lead when he was dead
      And shrouded up so neat,
And they the leaden coffin weigh
      Lest the Plumber should be a cheat.

They had it solder’d closely down
      And examined it o’er and o’er,
And they put it in a patent coffin
      That he might rise no more.

For to carry him off in a patent coffin
      Would they thought be but labour in vain,
So the Undertaker saw it bought of the maker
      Who lives by St. Martin’s lane.

In his brother’s church they buried him
      That safer he might be,
They lock’d the door and would not trust
      The Sexton with the key.

And three men in the vestry watch
      To save him if they can,
And should he come there to shoot they swear
      A resurrection man.

And the first night by lanthorn light
      Thro’ the church-yard as they went,
A guinea of gold the sexton shewed
      That Mister Joseph sent.

But conscience was tough, it was not enough
      And their honesty never swerved,
And they bade him go with Mister Joe
      To the Devil as he deserved.

So all night long by the vestry fire
      They quaff’d their gin and ale,
And they did drink as you may think
      And told full many a tale.

The second night by lanthorn light
      Thro’ the church-yard as they went,
He whisper’d anew and shew’d them two
      That Mister Joseph sent.

The guineas were bright and attracted their sight
      They look’d so heavy and new,
And their fingers itch’d as they were bewitch’d
      And they knew not what to do.

But they waver’d not long for conscience was strong
      And they thought they might get more,
And they refused the gold, but not
      So rudely as before.

So all night long by the vestry fire
      They quaff’d their gin and ale,
And they did drink as you may think
      And told full many a tale.

The third night as by lanthorn light
      Thro’ the church-yard they went,
He bade them see and shew’d them three
      That Mister Joseph sent.

They look’d askance with eager glance,
      The guineas they shone bright,
For the Sexton on the yellow gold
      Let fall his lanthorn light.

And he look’d sly with his roguish eye
      And gave a well-tim’d wink,
And they could not stand the sound in his hand
      For he made the guineas chink.

And conscience late that had such weight,
      All in a moment fails,
For well they knew that it was true
      A dead man told no tales,

And they gave all their powder and ball
      And took the gold so bright,
And they drank their beer and made good cheer,
      Till now it was midnight.

Then, tho’ the key of the church door
      Was left with the Parson his brother,
It opened at the Sexton’s touch—
      Because he had another.

And in they go with that villain Joe
      To fetch the body by night,
And all the church look’d dismally
      By his dark lanthorn light.

They laid the pick-axe to the stones
      And they moved them soon asunder.
They shovell’d away the hard-prest clay
      And came to the coffin under.

They burst the patent coffin first
      And they cut thro’ the lead,
And they laugh’d aloud when they saw the shroud
      Because they had got at the dead.

And they allowed the Sexton the shroud
      And they put the coffin back,
And nose and knees they then did squeeze
      The Surgeon in a sack.

The watchmen as they past along
      Full four yards off could smell,
And a curse bestowed upon the load
      So disagreeable.

So they carried the sack a-pick-a-back
      And they carv’d him bone from bone,
But what became of the Surgeon’s soul
      Was never to mortal known.

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