Beginning with the words, "They are and suffer, that is all they do," this poem describes the experience of those who are recovering from surgery and their treatment at the hands of impersonal doctors ("The treatment that the instruments are giving"). Suffering and pain narrow the patient's world and isolate patients who "lie apart like epochs from each other" and for whom "truth" is "how much they can bear."

The speaker also describes how difficult it is to imagine pain when one does not have it ("we stand elsewhere / For who when healthy can become a foot?"). Finally, the speaker refers to "the common world of the uninjured" where we "cannot / Imagine isolation," but share happiness, anger and "the idea of love."


This poem is useful in talking about the effects of pain on the sufferer, especially that of isolation and having one's world reduced to nothing but pain. It also provides insightful commentary on the effects of impersonal and distancing treatment by physicians, as well as the impassable chasm between the sick (or injured) and the healthy (the first two stanzas are rhymed quatrains and focus on the sufferers--"they," while the final two stanzas are unrhymed tercets and focus on the healthy "we").

Primary Source

The Selected Poetry of W. H. Auden



Place Published

New York