By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Our thoughts here at IL Towers during the recent lockdown period have, perhaps naturally, turned to plague, pestilence, and pandemics. How did poets of previous generations deal with, and respond to, plague and mass illness? How are poets of today writing about the current pandemic?
Here are some of the best poems to deal with this terrifying topic. We’d like to thank Caroline Collingridge for suggesting a number of these poems to us here at IL Towers; a poem by Caroline, reflecting the mood during the current pandemic, concludes this selection.
Lucretius, from De Rerum Natura.
The ancient Roman poet Lucretius penned this didactic poem, whose title translates as ‘on the nature of things’, in the first century BC.
Lucretius set about writing his long poem in order to explain Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience, but his poem also contains these lines on the Plague of Athens, which conclude the poem: ‘Mortal miasma in Cecropian lands / Whilom reduced the plains to dead men’s bones …’
Thomas Nashe, ‘A Litany in Time of Plague’.
Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss!
This world uncertain is:
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys.
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!
Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade;
All things to end are made;
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!
So begins this poem which Nashe wrote in 1593, when an outbreak of bubonic plague closed the London playhouses (Shakespeare would take advantage of the closure to write his narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and probably most of his sonnets).
The repeated refrain at the end of each stanza – ‘Lord, have mercy on us!’ – strikes at the heart as much now as it must have done over 400 years ago.
John Davies, from ‘The Triumph of Death’. Davies (1569-1626) was another poet to live through the plague outbreaks in London in the 1590s:
London now smokes with vapours that arise
From his foule sweat, himselfe he so bestirres:
‘Cast out your dead!’ the carcase-carrier cries,
Which he by heapes in groundlesse graves interres
Now like to bees in summer’s heate from hives,
Out flie the citizens, some here, some there;
Some all alone, and others with their wives:
With wives and children some flie, all for feare!
Here stands a watch, with guard of partizans,
To stoppe their passages, or to or fro,
As if they were not men, nor Christians,
But fiends or monsters, murdering as they go …
Davies’ poem captures the lockdown that villages were put under, as well as the sheer scale of destruction: he refers to ‘cart-loads’ of the ‘undigested dead’.
Mary Latter, ‘Soliloquy XVI’.
Mary Latter (1725-77) was an English poet, essayist and playwright whose name has fallen out of the history books, but she gave us this dramatic evocation of living in a time of ‘Contagion’ (published in 1759). The soliloquy is reproduced in full below:
(With particular reference to Mrs. ______r and Co.)
Now calumnies arise, and black Reproach
Triumphant croaks aloud, and joyful claps
Her raven wing! Insinuations vile
And slanderous spring from pestilential breath,
And tongues thrice dipped in hell. Contagion foul
Steams from th’ infernal furnace, hot and fierce,
And spreads th’ infectious influence o’er his fame!
Then each unworthy, ignominious fool,
Each female basilisk with forky sting,
And outward-seeming, heart-unmeaning tear
(Offspring most loathsome of Hypocrisy,
The vile, detested, double-damning sin:
Confusion and perdition overwhelm
And blast them, execrable, into ruin!),
Chin-deep in malice shoot their bitter darts
Of mockery and derision: adding, sly,
Th’ invidious wink, the mean, contemptuous leer,
And flouting grin, ‘emphatically scornful’.
Nor less th’ insidious knave, supremely dull!
Mixture of monkey, crocodile and mole,
Yet stupid as the ostrich, ass and owl;
In high redundance of Typhonic rage,
With harsh stentorian tone, disdainful, flings
Unmerited reflections, vehement, long,
Nonsensical and noisy. Vain, he struts
With domineering insolence replete,
And, lordly, tramples on distress in anguish.
Philip Freneau, ‘Pestilence’. Philip Morin Freneau (1752-1832) was an American poet, polemicist, sea captain and newspaper editor who has been dubbed ‘The Poet of the American Revolution’.
This poem, however, is about plague: specifically the ‘pestilence’ of yellow fever which killed 5,000 citizens of Philadelphia in 1793. Whilst not technically the most brilliant poem, Freneau’s ‘Pestilence’ does pay tribute to the horror of the disease as it ravaged the new American city:
Hot, dry winds forever blowing,
Dead men to the grave-yards going:
Oh! what plagues—there is no knowing!
Priests retreating from their pulpits!—
Some in hot, and some in cold fits
In bad temper,
Off they scamper,
Leaving us—unhappy culprits!
Murdo Young, Antonia.
Around that man whose breath is pestilence
They crowd – buy – touch and bear contagion thence.
Behold Affection haste with panting breath,
To bless her children with the feast of – death!
Each fondly presses to her bounteous treat,
And each receives what hunger longs to eat …
Young (c. 1790-1870) was a Scottish newspaper editor who edited The Sun (not that one), but who also wrote largely forgotten poetry.
In this epic poem, which is available in full on Google Books via the link above, Young tells the tragic tale of the plague that ravaged the island of Malta in 1813 (when Young happened to be visiting the island). In heroic couplets, Young weaves a narrative poem out of the epidemic. His forgotten poem was published in 1818.
Christina Rossetti, ‘The Plague’. Rossetti (1830-94) captures the terrifying suddenness of plague as it gripped the living and rapidly transformed them into the dead – indeed, the ‘multitude dead’. This Petrarchan sonnet is included in full below:
‘Listen, the last stroke of death’s noon has struck—
The plague is come,’ a gnashing Madman said,
And laid him down straightway upon his bed.
His writhed hands did at the linen pluck;
Then all is over. With a careless chuck
Among his fellows he is cast. How sped
His spirit matters little: many dead
Make men hard-hearted.— ‘Place him on the truck.
Go forth into the burial-ground and find
Room at so much a pitful for so many.
One thing is to be done; one thing is clear:
Keep thou back from the hot unwholesome wind,
That it infect not thee.’ Say, is there any
Who mourneth for the multitude dead here?
Tim Dlugos, ‘My Death’.
Probably the first poem of note to be written in response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, this four-line poem is especially poignant because it was written by a man who would later die of the disease. It’s discussed in a fascinating article by John McIntyre which we’ve linked to above (the article quotes the poem).
Jayne Cortez, ‘There It Is’.
The African-American poet, publisher, activist, and performance artist Jayne Cortez (1934-2012) writes powerfully here about the importance of resistance, and although the ‘resistance’ she argues for is political rather than biological, her poem contains the resonant words ‘They will spray you with / a virus of legionnaire’s disease / fill your nostrils with / the swine flu of their arrogance …’
Although this reference to ‘swine flu’ gives the poem a twenty-first-century feel, it was actually published back in the early 1980s.
Meghan O’Rourke, ‘The Night Where You No Longer Live’.
O’Rourke is a poet, essayist, and memoirist who was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1976. This haunting and enigmatic poem was published in Poetry magazine in 2015, and seems especially apt five years on, especially with its references to a ‘virus’ and ‘the world’s keening’.
Simon Armitage, ‘Lockdown’.
Written in the last couple of weeks while the current UK Poet Laureate has been on lockdown with his family in his Yorkshire home, ‘Lockdown’ responds to the current Coronavirus pandemic by going back in time to the plague of 1665 and the self-isolating ‘plague village’ of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.
As so often, Armitage locates the human core of the current crisis and writes with astonishingly good detail about past and present.
Kitty O’Meara, ‘And People Stayed Home’.
And people stayed home
and read books and listened
and rested and exercised
and made art and played …
This poem has been attributed to Kathleen O’Meara (1839-88), an Irish-French writer, since it recently went viral in early 2020, following the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s been claimed that Kathleen O’Meara wrote it in 1869 following the devastating Irish famine of the mid-nineteenth century.
However, the poem sounds far too contemporary to date from the 1860s, and indeed, it’s actually far more recent in origin – it was written by Catherine ‘Kitty’ O’Meara, from Madison, Wisconsin, in 2020.
Laura Kelly Fanucci, ‘When This Is Over’.
When this is over, may we never again take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbors
A crowded theater
Friday night out …
The author of this poem, Laura Kelly Fanucci, lives in Minnesota and writes a syndicated column titled ‘Faith at Home’ which is published in Catholic newspapers in the US. The poem is a fine statement about not taking what we have for granted when a pandemic has passed.
Caroline Collingridge, ‘Staying In’.
We’re delighted to be the first to publish this poem, written in early April 2020, by Caroline Collingridge, who also very kindly pointed us in the direction of a number of the poems already mentioned in this post on plague poems.
Collingridge’s poem deftly captures the uncertainty of living under lockdown during a pandemic, and the attendant need to change one’s perspective as well as one’s daily routine (the waiting, and the looking ‘for something to do’). We’ll give Caroline the last word:
The hopes and whims
Of times gone before
To breathe in the air
Our cushions upon
Which we sit
Waiting for what?
The end is coming
What is it drumming?
I know it will stop
But how I don’t know.
For something to do
When I can’t go out.
Just sitting on
How to help
us and our planet.
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Two fine novels on this theme are Journal of the Plague Year (1722) by Defoe and The Plague (1947) by Camus but I’d rather read comedies at the moment !
Those are sad and potent poems. I was deeply moved by Tim Dlugo’s ‘My Death’. Simon Armitage’s allusion to Meghduta is immensely effective and topical in his poem ‘Lockdown’.
This is a fantastic post. Enlightening, how little man’s response to epidemics changes over the centuries – the same terror, the same urge to flee, to protect ourselves. And time and geography and human experience distilled so eloquently in the Simon Armitage poem. Great post
Thanks, Lynn! I didn’t know all of these when I started researching the post – it was Armitage’s recent poem that gave me the idea :)
Fabulous choices – thanks so much for digging them out for us
Nice of you to share. I’ll drop by.