Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Dissecting Room

The same friend who found the mutant dandelions gave me a framed copy of this lithograph before I left town last year. It hangs in my bathroom in a themed grouping that includes a page from an anatomy text, a photograph of Mr. Johnson demonstrating facial restoration technique to his students, and my collection of antique dissection photos. Curious as to the origins of the image, I tried to look it up online, but there wasn't much about it. Then I came across it while reading Michael Sappol's A Traffic of Dead Bodies as an example of 19th c. medical illustration that bordered on the pornographic. He sources it to a volume of poetry on medical themes that was edited by Ina Russelle Warren and published in 1898. The litho appears on p. 248 of the book, called The Doctor's Window, which also contains the poem "In a Dissecting Room" by Dr. William Burt Harlow:

Sightless eyes half closed beneath
Long, black lashes curling yet;
Wavy locks the pale face wreathe
With the salty drops still wet.

Lying there so silently
Womanhood reproachful seems;
'Tis a face that we may see
Reappear in troubled dreams.

Lifeless, wasted arm and hand
Stripped of skin by scalpel keen;
Shining tendons, band on band
Ligaments and muscles seen.

Wondrously the fingers move,
Answering to the testing touch
Of each muscle far above,
Whilst the learner marvels much.

Searcher, wouldst that thou could find
What mysterious power once moved
That dead form! How vain and blind
This long quest of ours has proved!

Now the forceps and the knife
Merciless attack the face
Eagerly with death at strife
Winning by a swifter pace.

Inch by inch the clinging skin
With reluctance parting shows
Unknown wonders far within,
Sources whence expression flows.

Tiny threadlike muscles here
Teach the lips to move in smiles;
Draw the eyelids tense with fear.
Close them when soft sleep beguiles.

These have knit the brows to frown;
Those have taught the mouth to kiss;
Care and pain have oft weighed down
Wrinkling forehead's calm with this.

These once spread the nostrils wide
When in anger breath came fast;
Or when blew from ocean's tide
Airs of health caught ere they passed.

Magic house, where sometime dwelt
Spirit, soul, howe'er 'tis known!
Ah, what thrills thy walls have felt!
Whither has thy tenant flown?

If this ruined home appear
Wonderful beyond compare,
What was then the dweller here
That could vanish into air?

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