Discussion Topic

The meaning and usage of "on behalf of us all" in the poem "To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair."

Summary:

In the poem "To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair," the phrase "on behalf of us all" signifies collective empathy and gratitude. It acknowledges the doctor's efforts and emotional burden, expressing a communal sense of appreciation and sorrow for the tragic situation.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the speaker mean by saying "on behalf of us all" in the first line of the poem "To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair"?

Your question is a very good one.  Whenever you read poetry, it is important to note every single word and to understand the meaning and the context. 

There are clues throughout the poem to answer your question about the meaning of the phrase, "on behalf of us all."

First, the "us" appears to mean members of the family of the baby in question. 

In line 8 and line 11, there are references to the baby's mother.

Line 14 refers to "a bleary-eyed uncle."

Line 18 refers to the "grandpa who walked up and down with a colicky crier."

Line 21 reports that "a father sat watch."

If you try to imagine the scene, the injured baby has been taken to the doctor, and the poem's speaker is talking about the whole family who is concerned.  Each of these references lists some action that different family members usually take in the welfare of a baby -- changing it, walking with it, feeding it.  This gives the impression that this is a close-knit, caring family  that needs to work together.

In the closing four lines, the reference to "us" and "we" is repeated, but this time it seems different.  This time, the "rest of us" and "we slept in trust" seem to have a broader application, suggesting that the whole world sleeps better knowing that there are doctors like this one, ready to sacrifice themselves to help innocents like this baby.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the speaker mean by saying "on behalf of us all" in the first line of the poem "To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair"?

The expression "on behalf of all of us" seems to have at least a couple of effects in Dowling's poem. The phrase tends to have a connotation of gratitude; you can imagine someone completing the phrase with something like, "we'd like to thank you for..." This reading seems to be supported by the end of the poem, where the speaker and the others accounted for in the speaker's use of the pronoun "we" express that "we all slept in trust." Here, the speaker seems to be expressing gratitude because "we" are able to sleep soundly, trusting that the doctor is doing his job. While there are other people referenced in the poem who are actively involved in providing care for a baby, the collective "we" does the following:

"And for the rest of us, we all slept in trust /  that you would do what you did, / that you could do what you did. / We slept in trust that you lived."

Again, this repetition and the use of the first person plural pronoun suggests their appreciation and belief in the doctor; they are grateful for his work and his existence, which has also allowed them to sleep in peace while the doctor and others are working to care for this baby. 

Another effect of the use of the phrase "on behalf of us all" is more obvious. The use of the first person plural pronoun "us" and later "we" shows that many people are united in feeling this way. This is not just one speaker's opinion; it is one that is shared by a larger group of people. This lends the speaker's opinion more weight and objectivity. The use of "us" and "we," however, also distances this collective from the individual people who actively contribute to the baby's care. This group is not part of another collective referenced in the poem: the other people like the shepherd in line 6 or the "bleary-eyed uncle" in line  14 who contribute to the business of childcare in both similar and different ways than the doctor to whom the poem is addressed. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the speaker mean by saying "on behalf of us all" in the first line of the poem "To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair"?

Dowling becomes a voice of all the ordinary people going about their ordinary lives when she says she is speaking "on behalf of us all." The poem juxtaposes the horrible event of a doctor having to treat a raped baby with images of many good, ordinary people going about the business of their lives. Dowling is, she implies, speaking for the parent who has left "a light on in the hall," for a "nervous little sleeper." In other words, a parent exhibiting compassion for a child's night fears. She is also speaking for a simple shepherd singing a lullaby in "the veld" and women breastfeeding their babies and an uncle waking up "bleary-eyed" in the middle of the night to feed a baby. People read stories to children and a "grandpa" with "thin legs" walks around holding a fussy (colicky) baby. These acts all illustrate unselfishness, compassion, and sympathy for the young. All of these people, the poet says, rested easier--ie, "slept in trust," a phrase repeated twice for emphasis-- because the doctor was there to tend the baby. They are better off for the fact "that you [the doctor] would do what you did/that you would do what you did," a line also repeated twice for emphasis.

Although the poet never comes out and says that all these people thank the doctor, that gratitude is implied in the final lines that note what the doctor did. The poem is, in effect, a gift to the doctor, telling him not to despair as he asks the question "Where is God?"

The cumulative effect of the plural pronouns, coupled with the vignettes that capture, in a few vivid images, the contrast to a brutal rape through loving, nurturing people caring for children, becomes a chorus of sorts that counters the horror of what the doctor has just experienced. The doctor, quietly heroic, although just doing his job, fills these people with trust that they live in a society where an injured, abused child can get  care. Yes, there is horror in the world, but there are also other voices telling other stories that perhaps will alleviate the doctor's despair. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain the usage of "of us all" in the poem "To the doctor who treated the raped baby and felt such despair."

"All of us" refers to every witness of the situation taking place. This includes the direct witnesses who are working with the doctor, as he "cleanses," "opiates," and "stitches," and those of us reading about what is happening. It refers to everyone who commiserates and shares in the frustration of what is taking place; the abysmal nature of it all. 

It also refers to society and its general view of doctors.

the rest of us, we all slept in trust 
that you would do what you did,
that you could do what you did

"All of us" generally trust that doctors will do their jobs; yet, we hardly ever wonder what exactly goes on in their hearts when they have to deal with situations of this nature. Often, we think of medical doctors as miracle workers who make a lot of money and may or may not possess a god complex. However, few realize the hard journey it takes to make it to the ranks of a physician, and even fewer come to realize that they too have emotions, systems of belief, limitations, peeves, and frustrations. This particular doctor was dealing with the ultimate abomination, and it is clear that he (or she) has been emotionally moved by this case. Meanwhile, "all of us" go on with our lives while still commiserating with the doctor and the baby; we mourn the fact that events like this can happen in our society.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain the usage of "of us all" in the poem "To the doctor who treated the raped baby and felt such despair."

In the poem, the phrase in question, 'of us all,' can be found in the first line. It refers to those who are interested in the baby's fate and those who are thankful that there is a doctor in their midst who will tend to the brutalized infant.

Through the use of enjambment, the poet cleverly paints an accurate portrait of the dichotomies of life. While the process of living continues normally for most people, the existence of horrific aberrations in the fabric of life cannot be ignored. Enjambment is a poetic device that is used to highlight a sense of continuity in a poem; non-existent pauses at the end of each line lend an immediacy and urgency to the poem. As we read, each line melds into the next in a rhythmic symphony, reinforcing the notion that the aberrations of life will always co-exist with the mundane.

While the doctor works furiously to save the life of the baby, life must continue normally for other children. The phrase 'of us all' also suggests a sense of collaboration: concerned citizens must rely on the doctor to restore a measure of normalcy to the life of a brutalized infant while they strive to preserve security in the lives of other innocents. So, in a sense, all concerned parties must labor for the security of all.

And for the rest of us, we all slept in trust
that you would do what you did,
that you could do what you did.
We slept in trust that you lived.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on