Literature Annotations


Abse, Dannie
A Poet in the Family


Genre Autobiography (198 pp.)
KeywordsAdolescence, Art of Medicine, Family Relationships, Father-Son Relationship, Humor and Illness/Disability, Love, Medical Education, Memory, Mother-Son Relationship, Physician Experience, War and Medicine
Summary

This short, anecdotal autobiography begins with the author's birth in Cardiff in 1923 and ends in the mid-1960's when the author had become a successful writer and physician in London. Much of the story concerns Abse's childhood and youth. The theme is self-definition: how did it come about that, like Anton P. Chekhov, the young Dannie Abse chose to devote his life to "chasing two hares" (medicine and writing).

His lower middle-class Jewish parents, especially his father, found no redeeming social value in having a poet in the family. Influenced by his older brother Wilfred (who became a psychoanalyst), Dannie gravitated toward medicine as a career, although he almost fainted when he observed his first surgery.

When Dannie was a student in London, poetry energized his life. He published "After Every Green Thing," his first volume of poetry, while still in medical training (1949). He also met Joan, his future wife, in 1949 and they were married in 1951.

He was assigned to reading chest x-rays while serving his time in the Royal Air Force. Subsequently, Dannie took a part-time job as a civilian in the RAF chest clinic in London and began his dual career as chest physician and writer. Near the end of A Poet in the Family, Dannie describes the death of his father in Llandough Hospital in 1964.

Commentary

This autobiography is lively and full of fascinating stories. Of particular interest is Dannie's experience growing up in the 1930's as a Jewish boy in South Wales. He describes his sense of being different--after all, he was the only Jewish student in a Roman Catholic grammar school--while at the same time the feeling of being accepted: no victimization here. At the same time, the young man has a growing realization of the plight of Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Abse's stories of medical training are delightful, especially the caper in which he was ostensibly taught to taste urine (?) as a way of diagnosing diabetes (p. 97). There are also interesting observations on the difficulties of pursuing dual careers in medicine and creative writing. Abse expands on this topic in a more metaphorical way in his play, Pythagoras (Smith) [see this database].

PublisherHutchinson
Edition1974
Place PublishedLondon
Alternate SourceA Poet in the Family
Alternate PublisherRobson Books (paperback)
Alternate Edition1984
Place PublishedLondon
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 05/11/99