Dentologia: A Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth (1833)

Dentologia begins seemingly far away from the world of teeth. Invoking Juno and Apollo, the first canto ruminates on how “angelic natures” are revealed “when purified from the stains of mortality”. We gradually realize that the “stains” in question have little to do with divinity or sin. The poet is talking about plaque.

The next five sections of this remarkable (and remarkably long) poem prove to be a crash course in dental hygiene and disease prevention — loosely tracking the stages of health from birth unto death. Canto Second is pediatric, concerned with the lifecycle of milk teeth: “Some struggling tooth, just bursting into day / Obtuse and vigorous, urges on its way”. Canto Third is a critique of luxury, laziness, and neglect: “If sloth or negligence the task forbear / Of making cleanliness a daily care”, then “insidious tartar comes / Incrusts the teeth and irritates the gums”. Canto Fourth is all about cavities and implants: the latter being fashioned from the “lordly elephant”, who, “in hoary pride”, toils “through successive ages to provide / The ivory tusk”. Finally, Canto Fifth begins with an apostrophe to health (“Gay, blushing Health!”), and develops into a discussion of how diseases of the mouth affect a body’s general condition. Brown’s poem closes on the image of a woman named Seraphina, a singer whose voice, once “so sweet, the labouring bees might stop to sip”, now only sounds “discordant notes”. Her “premature decay” is caused by a disease of her “dental pearls”. Seraphina’s prescription (and Dentologia’s general argument) can be distilled into four lines — a variation of the message delivered by today’s dentists and hygienists at every appointment’s end:

Let each successive day unfailing bring
The brush, the dentifrice, and, from the spring,
The cleansing flood : — the labor will be small,
And blooming health will soon reward it all.

Published in 1833, Dentologia was written by Solyman Brown, who helped found the first dental journal, society, and school in the United States. Known in his lifetime as “the poet laureate of dentistry”, Brown had sent a draft of Dentologia to Eleazar Parmly, another titan of American toothcare, who showed it to two gentlemen “distinguished for their fine taste in literature”. Overwhelmed by nameless critics’ positive response to the poem, Parmly wrote its preface and furnished the eighty pages of cantos with fifty more pages of erudite footnotes, crammed with citations to contemporary dentistry manuals.

Far from justifying or explaining Brown’s verse — which Nicholas Parsons calls “the most eccentric, and certain the most engaging, didactic poem in English” — these labyrinthine notes only multiply its bizarre charms. Footnoting a mouthy metaphor (“A shining panoply of orient pearls”), Parmly presents the reader with a wall of text:

The chief object of attention in artificial teeth is, that the substance be durable, and not liable to change color. Human teeth and those of small animals have been heretofore supposed to answer the best purpose, while teeth cut from those of the sea horse have ranked next in importance; but lately, they have been formed with great success from certain materials known to the manufacturers, and have been variously denominated, according to the taste of the artist — silicious pearl teeth — mineral teeth — porcelain teeth — incorruptible, and terro-metallic.

Parmly continues on like this for another half-page, informing his audience that the most successful method for installing an artificial tooth is by means of “a pivot to a sound fang”. Ironically, Dentologia is often at its most poetic — revitalizing worn language with associations anew — when Parmly loses himself in scholarly learning. “Tartar is an accumulation of acrimonious earth matter, round the necks of the teeth”, he states.

It is easy to laugh at Dentologia. The mouthfeel is all wrong. The poem’s forced iambic pentameter has the effect of a sadistic orthodontic device: every line is bent into uniformity for bending’s sake. And the unrelenting rhyming couplets fester humor in moments where gravity is requested. Frequently included in laughing-stock anthologies with titles such as Really Bad Ideas Throughout History, Brown and Parmly’s creation is usually praised only for elevating dentistry to a talking point — perhaps via ridicule — in an era when standards and accreditation were lax. And yet, as Ben Lerner intimates when discussing another nineteenth-century poet’s “radical failure”, there is something about Brown’s shortcomings that let us glimpse both the promise and impossibility of perfection. It’s an apt form for a poem about teeth. And it wasn’t Brown’s final attempt. Turning to blank verse, he went on to publish Dental Hygeia: A Poem on the Health and Preservation of the Teeth in 1838.