Lost & Found
The Body in Verse
Many readers who hate the inside of a doctor's office still relish a tale of the conquest of a new and exotic disease told by a physician with literary talent. Few, however, have had the experience of reading a physician's poetic reflections on his profession and its limitations. For that sort of thing, we have to look far afield, to an age with a radically different aesthetic sensibility.
In the Middle Ages, a poet might praise God for His creation of the human body. Hoping to make his dietary advice more palatable, he might present it in verse. Out of an ornamental impulse, he might beautify a medical treatise with a poetic prologue. To aid in memorization, he might even cast a work of medical theory into rhymed couplets. What follow are several Hebrew examples of this genre.
Our first author, Isaac Israeli (ca. 855-955 C.E.), a Jewish Neoplatonist philosopher in North Africa, was also a renowned physician. His Arabic treatises on diagnosing patients from their pulse and urine were medieval classics. They were translated into Hebrew and then Latin and became part of the medical school curriculum in the universities of Europe. This selection is a brief preface to one of his other works, a book on food and diet. Composed, perhaps, by his medieval Hebrew translator, it compares a sick man with a ship in a commonly invoked image suggesting the limits of the medical profession. No matter how good the pilot, if the storm is fierce enough, the ship will go down.
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