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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Vitamins in verse

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 03 August 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4887
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Do we worry too much or too little about our health? I can never quite make up my mind, but it seems to me probable that there is an inverse anxiety law: those with most to worry about do so least, while those with least to worry about do so most.

To treat each meal as a medical procedure, however, is certainly to go too far in the direction of caution, even if a little bit of what we fancy does us harm. The comic poet and member of parliament (a combination of careers difficult to envisage today) A P Herbert, who was born in 1890 and died in 1971, satirised this tendency in his poem The Vitamins, published in 1930 in his collection Ballads for Broadbrows.

Vitamins were a comparatively new thing when he wrote, but Herbert was nevertheless behind the times, biochemically speaking, and was not always quite accurate: “Vitamin ‘A’ / Keeps the rickets away / And succours the meagre and nervy . . .”

Then he improves slightly: “‘B’’s what you lack / If the stomach is slack, / And ‘C’ is the foe of the scurvy.”

Herbert then satirises the so called vitamania; the then fashionable belief that all diseases were caused by vitamin deficiency: “So when a man dines / Let him murmur these lines, / Or sure he will live to deplore it— / Just ask yourself ‘What / Disease have I got / And which is the vitamin for it?’”

Herbert published in Punch and was somewhat put out that his work was not esteemed more highly by the literati. “It has never been clear to us,” he complained, “why light verse, however good, should be regarded as inferior to ‘serious’ poetry, however bad.” He pointed out that, while Homer could nod from time to time, a comic poet could not afford a single dull line that neither scanned nor rhymed. Light verse of his kind, he said, was very hard work to produce.

Such a complaint could easily slide into anti-intellectualism. Herbert was sceptical about vitamins on the grounds that humanity had long existed, and even thrived, before their discovery: “And Nelson, Raleigh, Drake, St Paul / Did fairly well with none at all. / These simple people never knew / The secrets shared by me and you . . .”

Then the scientists came and spoiled unselfconscious pleasure: “But you and I, of sterner schools, / Must eat by scientific rules.” They made it incumbent upon every responsible citizen to know the value of what he ate: “So do not plunge a hasty fork / Into the pickles or the pork, / But telephone to Harley Street, / ‘Is this a vital thing to eat?’”

Herbert ironically advocates the labelling of food: “Before you order what you want — / Tripe, caviar or crème de menthe — / Before you seize and swallow whole / Some luscious bird or fancy sole, / Send for the manager and hiss, / ‘Is there a vitamin in this?’”

Unhappily, then as now, what was good for us was not always what we most liked: “Well ‘B’ occurs in nuts and peas, / In lentils, beans, and things like these, / In wholemeal rye and wholemeal wheat, / And bread that is not fit to eat, / In roes of fish and some dried fruits, / And milk and yeast and uncooked roots; / And death, as far as I can see, / May be preferred to eating ‘B.’” The solution is close at hand: “I have found a Vitamin / In brandy, burgundy and gin.” Quite right, provided, of course, that it is not overdone; by which I mean, consumption greater than mine.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4887