About the Poet – Spencer Michael Free had a long and fulfilling life. He was born in New Freedom, Pennsylvania on September 19th,1856. Free graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Johns Hopkins University in 1880, being one of eleven students whose work merited hospital appointment. He then went on to practice medicine and surgery for some fifty years in towns all over Pennsylvania, such as Dagus Mines, Beech Tree and DuBois. He also taught classes in many subjects at the Ohio Wesleyan University. He taught natural philosophy, chemistry, Latin and algebra. While teaching there, he also took up an active role in literary and forensic societies. So he primarily belonged to the medical profession, but he also had other interests that he engaged himself with. Chief among these interests were the arts and letters. In addition to some one hundred medical papers, he also wrote many poems. ‘The Human Touch’ is one of those poems. As President of the DuBois Council, he helped to bring music back to the public schools. He also directed a Sunday choir and a Sunday school orchestra by himself, and taught a men’s Bible class for twenty years. The country club and the local Rotary club knew him as organiser. He passed away in 1936.
About the Poem
Spencer Michael Free published two collection of poetry in his lifetime. In 1925, he published the collection known as The Human Touch and Other Poems, and in 1931, he published Shawnee Cabin and Other Poems. As one can probably guess, ‘The Human Touch’ is taken from the first of these collections. Lines from this poem are quoted very often for the message it gives about human contact, and its positive effects on the lives of ordinary people.
Setting of the Poem
Spencer Michael Free wrote ‘The Human Touch’ at a pretty advanced stage of his life. Hence in this poem, he is offering his readers advice on how to live their lives, drawn from his own vast experience of this world. He is perhaps the best person to be speaking on this subject. His biography reveals that apart from healing people of their ailments, he also worked for various charitable organizations. Hence he was, more than anyone else, qualified to speak on the merits of human touch.
Please note: N= noun, V=verb, Adj=Adjective, Adv=Adverb, P=preposition
’Tis (V): Short form of “it is”, commonly used in poetry in order to maintain the rhyme scheme chosen by that particular poet
Counts (V): Matters
Fainting (Adj): Lacking bodily strength
Shelter (N): A place giving temporary protection from bad weather or danger
O’er (P): Short form of “over”, commonly used in poetry in order to maintain the rhyme scheme chosen by that particular poet
Soul (N): The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal
Summary of The Human Touch
‘The Human Touch’ consists of a total of 12 lines. These lines are not separated into stanzas. Here they are divided into meaningful segments for ease of comprehension.
’Tis the human touch
in this world that counts,
In these lines, the poet tells his readers that only one thing matters the most in this world – the human touch. Hence he establishes the subject matter of this poem right in the first two lines itself. Knowing the brevity that poetic language must take into account, he launches into it from the very beginning. It is, of course, no surprise that a physician and surgeon should value the touch of his hand. However, as we will soon come to see, this is not the case.
The touch of your hand and mine,
Which means far more
to the fainting heart
Than shelter and bread and wine.
In these lines, the poet says that any human hand can offer the touch that will save a human being from ruin. Hence it cannot be that the poet is talking specifically of curing bodily ailments, or of the medical profession. One must then read between the lines, which appear to be quite simple on the surface, to reach the true and underlying message of the poem. Free therefore says that his own hand or also the reader’s hand can be cheering to the man who is in distress, to the man who has given up all hope in his heart. We may be led to equate human beings with just bodies that need air, and water, and food, but that would be wrong, according to Free. If that were so, just a house, and some bread and wine could solve man’s every problem. However, this is not the case. Man has needs apart from these things as well, and this is where the human touch comes in handy. Man needs companionship, for man is a social animal.
For shelter is gone
when the night is o’er,
And bread lasts only a day.
In these lines, the poet says that shelter and food are but temporary solutions to the problem of man’s survival on earth. When the night is over, and the sun has come up in the sky, the need for shelter is dispensed with. Man must then venture out into the world outside, and find a way to go on through the day. He must then ask for the help of his fellowmen if he is to live a fulfilling life. Similarly, as soon as food is ingested, it is gone. Man must then take the help of his fellowmen to fill his stomach again. Hence shelter and food can help an individual human being survive for a short period of time, but it cannot really help mankind live long and prosper on this earth.
But the touch of the hand
And the sound of the voice
Sing on in the soul always.
In these lines, the poet comes up with a solution to the problem he has outlines in the earlier lines. He says that the human hand and the human voice can give man hope. Even when one feels lost and alone, the presence of another human being is a beacon in the night. Hearing another voice can help a man feel less lonely. The larger point is that the touch of the hand and the sound of the voice live on in the universal soul. Individual human beings may die, but the eternal soul of man will survive as long as we continue to look out for each other. Hence, the human touch serves two purposes according to Free – to give one man hope, and to help all men survive.