The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “What the Doctor Said,” the speaker is recalling the most traumatic experience of his life. His doctor tells him he has terminal lung cancer. The fact that it is inoperable is indicated by the doctor’s statement that he quit after counting “thirty-two of them.” Twice the doctor refers to “them” as if avoiding calling “them” what they really are: malignant tumors. He does not suggest any treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy, nor does he suggest, as doctors often do, that his patient seek a second opinion. The doctor is trying to be kind but wants to make it clear that there is no hope for a cure. Both doctor and patient feel awkward, and the speaker is more aware of the doctor’s feelings than his own. He will have plenty of time to experience his own complex feelings when he is alone with the grim, inescapable fact that he is very gently being handed his death sentence. The doctor quite understandably asks the patient if he is a religious man, presumably hoping he has some faith in a higher power that will give him consolation. This question, however, only makes the patient’s grim fate more certain because it is as if the doctor is saying, “There is nothing medical science can do for you; you had better prepare to meet your maker.”

The poem ends with a very puzzling statement. The speaker seems almost grateful that the doctor has just given him “something no one else on earth” has ever given him. The speaker...

(The entire section is 474 words.)