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A poem for Columbus Day

Richard Wilbur, our wittiest and most urbane American poet, wrote a patter song for Dr. Pangloss for the original production of Candide. It was. I believe, not used, but it has been preserved in his New and Collected Poems.

The occasion is the point in the narrative at which Candide meets Pangloss after a long separation, to discover that the good doctor is in the advanced stages of syphilis. But, Pangloss explains, it is all for the best on the best of all possible worlds. Two stanzas from “Pangloss’s Song: A Comic-Opera Lyric”:

“Columbus and his men, they say, / Conveyed the virus hither / Whereby my features rot away / And vital powers wither; / Yet had they not traversed the seas / And come infected back, / Why, think of all the luxuries / That modern life would lack!

“All bitter things conduce to sweet, / As this example shows; / Without the little spirochete / We’d have no chocolate to eat, / Nor would tobacco’s fragrance greet / The European nose.”

If your library lacks a volume of Mr. Wilbur’s verse, it is sadly incomplete.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:03 PM | | Comments (3)


As long as you're browsing the disease-literature shelves, be sure you read Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice, and History, his respectful paean to typhus.

The fact that it's Thanksgiving Day here in Canada adds a whole different level of humor to that excerpt.

Here's to the spirochete.

Commending Richard Wilbur to readers -- bravo! You must be a pointy-headed intellectual. Another bravo.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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