Original title page

The first canto opens with an invocation to living beauty as seen in the human face, and how personal charm, character, and even moral qualities are mirrored in its features. The teeth, of course, are part of the general physiognomy, and after 108 lines of rather tedious, high-flown verse, Mr Brown finally gets around to mentioning dentistry.

“Be mine the pride in measured verse to raise
A plain but lasting monument of praise,
To that distinguished science, known of yore,
Designed departed beauty to restore –
The Dental Art, by Greece and Rome admired,
When woman to imperial thrones aspired; –
Those mighty states were both to ruin hurled,
But lo! Their art survives to bless the world.”

Mr Brown admits that dentistry seems to cry out for dull prose rather than verse, but never one to be deterred by a challenge, after a further 32 lines, he plunges with poetic gusto into the subject of milk-teeth:

“One common destiny awaits our kind; –
‘Tis this, that long before the infant mind
Attains maturity – and ere the sun
Has through the first septennial circle run,
The teeth, deciduous, totter and decay,
And prompt successors hurry them away.”

The first canto closes with a few lines on the importance of good dental practitioners.

The second canto opens with more lines on milk-teeth and the operation of lancing the gums:

“Some struggling tooth, just bursting into day,
Obtuse and vigorous, urges on its way,
While inflammation, pain, and bitter cries,
And flooding tears, in sad succession rise.
The lancet, then, alone can give relief,
And mitigate the helpless sufferer’s grief.”

It is necessary to care for the milk-teeth to pave the way for healthy second teeth, and when the second teeth do arrive, dental care should start early, lest the teeth become

“Deranged, displaced, distorted, set awry,
Disgusting objects of deformity!”

The effects of poor dentition on female beauty are graphically depicted thus:

“Let azure eyes with coral lips unite,
And health’s vermilion blend with snowy white;
Let auburn tresses float upon the gale,
And flowery garlands all their sweets exhale;
If once the lips in parting, should display
The teeth discoloured or in disarray,
The spell dissolves, and beauty in despair
Beholds her fond pretensions melt in air.”

But never fear, a skilled dentist can put all this right:

“But learn the remedy: – the dentist’s skill
Subjects disordered nature to his will; –
As great commanders hear without alarms,
The shouts of battle and the shock of arms,
And, when their troops, in broken ranks, incline
To wild confusion, bring them into line;
So he – the master of the dental art,
Can order, grace, and symmetry impart,
Where anarchy had else sustained alone
The undisputed title to his throne.”

This brings us to the end of the second canto.

The third canto bemoans the effects of the wrong types of food and drink on the teeth – “intemperate luxury” our poet calls it. Then comes a grim warning about the neglect of proper dental hygiene:

“If sloth or negligence the task forbear
Of making cleanliness a daily care;
If fresh ablution, with the morning sun,
Be quite forborne or negligently done;
In dark disguise insidious tartar comes,
Incrusts the teeth and irritates the gums,
Till vile deformity usurps the seat
Where smiles should play and winning graces meet,
And foul disease pollutes the fair domain,
Where health and purity should ever reign.”

Lack of proper dental hygiene, our poet assures us, can result in caries:

“Destructive caries comes with secret stealth
T’avenge the violated laws of health:
Dilapidates the teeth by slow decay,
And bears them all successively away.”

The third canto closes with some lines on the triumph of modern dentistry over toothache, “the terror of mankind”:

“Through cheerless days made desolate by thee,
And long, long nights of sleepless agony,
Have marked thy fearful reign in days of yore,
Thy power is crushed, – thy scorpion-sting no more
Affrights the helpless, for the dental art
Commands thy gloomy terrors to depart.”

So endeth the third canto.

The fourth canto has as its theme the remedies on offer for various disorders of the teeth:

“When’er, along the ivory disks, are seen,
The filthy footsteps of the dark gangrene;
When caries comes, with stealthy pace to throw
Corrosive ink spots on those banks of snow –
Brook no delay, ye trembling, suffering fair,
But fly for refuge to the dentist’s care.
His practised hand, obedient to his will,
Employs the slender file with nicest skill;
Just sweeps the germin of disease away,
And stops the fearful progress of decay.”

This, of course, refers to fillings, and those “morbid cavities” which:

“…with skill
The practised dental surgeon learns to fill!”

There then follows a poetic dissertation on false teeth. The wonderful thing about this part of the poem is that though it is about false teeth, the words “false teeth” – or their direct equivalent – do not appear anywhere in the 56 lines devoted to this riveting subject. Yet our poet does manage to mention the River Ganges, the Mountains of Tibet, elephants, hippopotami, aeronauts, mariners, the Milky Way and the Pole Star!

The fourth canto closes with a eulogium on those who labour for the general benefit of mankind. Dentists, of course, come under this heading.

The fifth and final canto opens with an “Apostrophe to Health”, then plunges with gusto into the detrimental influence of disordered teeth on the lungs, the digestive organs, and the nervous system generally:

“But most the teeth, for various use employed,
Disturb the system when themselves destroyed;
For when these organs, yielding to decay,
In morbid exhalations waste away,
The vital air, from heavn’s aerial flood,
That warms with life the circulating blood,
Bears to the heaving lungs the deadly bane,
Where all its noxious qualities remain,
While every breath the poisonous draught repeats,
And spreads disease with every pulse that beats.”

Some of the worst maladies result from the inability to chew food properly before swallowing it. Our poet describes the results in graphic terms:

“But when, from loss of teeth, the food must pass,
A crude and rigid, and unbroken mass,
To the digestive organs; who can know
What various forms of complicated woe,
May rise terrific from that single source?
For nature, once resisted in her course,
Breeds frightful things – a monstrous progeny!
Consumption, fever, palsy, leprosy,
The hobbling gout, that chides, at every breath,
The lingering pace of all-destroying death;
And apoplexy, dragging to his doom
The half-surviving victim of the tomb.”

After this we are treated to a discourse on the importance of teeth to “the arts of eloquence and vocal music.” Teeth are essential to proper pronunciation, and are thus essential to the orator, the statesman, or the priest in the pulpit. The singer, too, relies upon the favours of a complete set of teeth, and our poet next relates the sad story of Seraphina. This unfortunate lady, formerly a leading light in the church choir, became a virtual recluse:

“To lonely solitude she gives her hours,
In shady copse, or shadier garden-bowers:–
In silent grief, and unconsoled, she pines,
And scarce to heaven’s high will her soul resigns.
For, lo, the heavenly music of her lip –
So sweet, the labouring bees might stop to sip,
Has passed away; discordant notes succeed,
And Seraphina’s bosom lives to bleed.”

The reason – need we ask it? – is tooth decay, and our poet closes his fifth canto with these lines:

“Ye ask the cause:– by premature decay,
Two of her dental pearls have passed away;
The two essential to those perfect strains,
That charm the soul when heavenly music reigns.
But fly, ye swains, to Seraphina fly,
And bid her fastly flowing tears be dry;
Haste to her cottage, where in vain she seeks
To wipe the burning deluge from her cheeks;
And when ye find her, soothe her frantic mind,
And bid her cast her sorrows to the wind;
In secret whisper this kind truth impart; –
There is a remedy: – the dental art
Can every varying tone with ease restore,
And give thee music sweeter than before!”