Pathology of Colours

Abse, Dannie

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: Sep-24-1999
  • Last revised: Oct-06-2015


In this haunting poem, Abse compares the colors found around us to colors found in illness and death. The poem begins prettily, "I know the color rose, and it is lovely," an image which is immediately juxtaposed with a tumor ripening into the same color. Similarly in the same quatrain, another image of nature, "healing greens", is compared with "limbs that fester" of the same color. To emphasize the tension of the similarity and difference, Abse ends the two lines with the same word. However, the nature image is "so springlike," while the illness image is "not springlike."By the second quatrain, the images become more grotesque and frightening, as the colors of "the plum-skin face of a suicide" and the "china white" eyes or figure of a car accident victim are described. In the following quatrain, the tensions mount, as "the criminal, multi-coloured flash / of an H-bomb" is described as "beautiful" and compared to the stunning and glorious image of the mesentery dissected during an autopsy: "cathedral windows never opened."The poem closes with the rainbow, seen not only in the sky, but also in "the bevelled edge of a sunlit mirror," as well as in the striped "soldier's ribbon on a tunic tacked." Life and death, nature and pathology, health and illness are hence all united by common colors; colors which are reflected in that "sunlit mirror."


This masterful poem can also be read as commentary on how the experiences of medical training change how one views the world. Everything around the physician gets reinterpreted in light of what the physician has seen--not only will the physician think of the green of "leaves and grass" when he sees a putrid wound, but s/he will also think of that wound when looking at leaves and grass. It is a profession in which death becomes visible, tangible, and ever-present. This poem, which sits so quietly on the page, is disturbing and full of wisdom.


This poem appeared earlier in A Small Desperation (London: Hutchinson, 1968)

Primary Source

Collected Poems: 1948-1976



Place Published