W.H. Auden on The Skin Microbiome

A New Year Greeting

The poet, W.H. Auden, matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford in 1925 with a scholarship to study Biology. This poem should interest physicians, especially dermatologists. Had Auden become a biologist, think what the world might have lost! Osler quotes Lowell: “We reward the discoverer of an anaesthetic for the body and make him a member of all the societies, but him who finds a nepenthe for the soul we elect into the small Academy of the Immortals.'” (from John Keats: The Apothecary Poet, in The Alabama Student.) This poem was published in Scientific American in 1969

On this day tradition allots
        to taking stock of our lives,
    my greetings to all of you, Yeasts,
        Bacteria, Viruses,
    Aerobics and Anaerobics:
        A Very Happy New Year
    to all for whom my ectoderm
        is as Middle-Earth to me.

    For creatures your size I offer
        a free choice of habitat,
    so settle yourselves in the zone
        that suits you best, in the pools
    of my pores or the tropical
        forests of arm-pit and crotch,
    in the deserts of my fore-arms,
        or the cool woods of my scalp.

    Build colonies: I will supply
        adequate warmth and moisture,
    the sebum and lipids you need,
        on condition you never
    do me annoy with your presence,
        but behave as good guests should,
    not rioting into acne
        or athlete’s-foot or a boil.

    Does my inner weather affect
        the surfaces where you live?
    Do unpredictable changes
        record my rocketing plunge
    from fairs when the mind is in tift
        and relevant thoughts occur
    to fouls when nothing will happen
        and no one calls and it rains.

    I should like to think that I make
        a not impossible world,
    but an Eden it cannot be:
        my games, my purposive acts,
    may turn to catastrophes there.
        If you were religious folk,
    how would your dramas justify
        unmerited suffering?

    By what myths would your priests account
        for the hurricanes that come
    twice every twenty-four hours,
        each time I dress or undress,
    when, clinging to keratin rafts,
        whole cities are swept away
    to perish in space, or the Flood
        that scalds to death when I bathe?

    Then, sooner or later, will dawn
        a Day of Apocalypse,
    when my mantle suddenly turns
        too cold, too rancid, for you,
    appetising to predators
        of a fiercer sort, and I
    am stripped of excuse and nimbus,
        a Past, subject to Judgement.

This poem appeared after an article by Mary J. Marples in Scientific American, January, 1969 © by owner. Provided at no charge for educational purposes

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About humanemedicine

The Online Journal of Community and Person-Centered Dermatology (OJCPCD) is a free, full text, open-access, online publication that addresses all aspects of skin disease that concern patients, their families, and practitioners. ​It was founded in 2012 by Dr. David J. Elpern, M.D. in Williamstown, MA. with technical help from Inez Tan.

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