Poems and Plagues

Around this time last year, just when The Virus was working its way towards pandemic status, certain books started to raise their public profile quite dramatically. None more so than Albert Camus’s La Peste and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Their covers were strikingly unblemished, and all the more visible across the ever less crowded train carriages. Their readers were devouring them as if they were nothing less than survival manuals.

 Though Defoe’s account was only published fifty-seven years after the Great Plague of 1665, it was consequently better researched and informed than Samuel Pepys’s Diary entries at the time of the outbreak. Camus’s 1947 novel may be technically fictitious, but much of its source material derives from the plague which had swept through the French Algerian town of Oran a century before. Being, famously, one of a body of twentieth century authors labelled existentialist, Camus’s main preoccupation was that of the individual’s power, or lack of it, in the face of such epidemic forces majeures.

 In this respect it spoke directly and urgently to the reading public of 2020. So too did the poetry born of pestilence over the past millennium and more, and if there was less public evidence of this, one reason was that relevant pieces were generally to be found in volumes that did not wear the word Plague on their sleeves. Yet there’s a profusion of the stuff, and its coming to light these past twelve months has been a double revelation, showing not only the quality of some lesser known authors’ work but also, more prosaically, the sheer frequency of public health catastrophies.

 Take Shakespeare. In 1564, the year of his birth in Stratford-upon-Avon, about a quarter of the town’s population died from the plague. Twenty-eight years later, when he was living and working in London, an outbreak closed the city’s theatres for months on end. Turning the lockdown to advantage, he wrote his poem Venus and Adonis, which did wonders for his career.

 For most of the seventeenth century’s first decade, and into the second, the Globe and other theatres in the capital were closed for a total of almost eighty months. Looking for plague-free locations, Shakespeare’s company started to forge links with such provincial towns as Coventry, Shrewsbury and Bath. 

 Just as sickness and sudden death became commonplace, so, inevitably, did the imagery of pestilence littering the author’s lines. Hence the dying Mercutio’s willing “a plague on both your houses” to the feuding Capulets and Montagues in Romeo and Juliet would have carried a hideously visceral charge. Likewise King Lear’s declaring to his daughter Goneril, “Thou art a boil”; or Coriolanus’s graphic cursing of the plebeians: “Boils and plagues/Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred/Farther than seen, and one infect another/Against the wind a mile!”

 Go back a further two centuries and we find an England reeling first from the effects of the Great Famine brought about by a chronic grain shortage, and later by The Black Death, which is reckoned to have carried off about half of the country’s population. Death truly became a way of life. It brought in massive demographic shifts; a falling-away of once great monastic houses; land clearances which the weakened rural communities were unable to oppose. Later commentators note the prehistory of enclosure, Reformation and the end of English society’s three-way division of nobility, clergy and peasantry. 

 There was no way that poets as astute as Geoffrey Chaucer, his friend John Gower, and William Langland, author of the politically observant Vision of Piers Plowman , could let the time’s upheavals pass unscrutinised.  Through his presentation of death as a protagonist in his Pardoner’s Tale, Chaucer springs the bold, controversial trick of suggesting that the plague is only interested in taking the lives of those whose ways have fallen into the abyss of immorality.

 Whether or not he believed that to be the case, he was recognising a tradition of scapegoating which stretched from Pharoah’s enslavement of the Hebrews and which was to continue unabated into our own times with the blaming of HIV-AIDS on the gay community. 

 Plague imagery gets everywhere. Thanks to a famous nursery rhyme it is even embedded in the sounds of our own infancy. Ring a Ring o’ Roses, referring to the illness’s blotchy red sores, didn’t appear in print until 1881, but it had been hanging around for centuries in oral form, with its innocent chime harbouring the dark reality of pocketfuls of posies that masked the stink of the sickness from which all fell down. 

 Let’s not forget Eyam, and let’s be grateful to Simon Armitage for doing as Laureates are meant to at such times by reminding us, in verse, of that Derbyshire village’s extraordinary story. It was to this small rural community that a bale of cloth had arrived from the plague-stricken capital in 1665. When the damp fabric was dried at the hearth by a tailor’s assistant called George Viccars, out swarmed  the infection-laden fleas. With social distancing being a concept of the far future, whole families were succumbing to the lethal Yersina pestis bacterium within days.

 The newly installed rector William Mompesson, enlightened but controversial, persuaded the population to quarantine itself so that the infection could not spread beyond the confines of the village. It was nothing if not an act of self-sacrifice, and in the course of just over a year one third of the village’s population of eight hundred were dead. Those who survived were aided by deliveries of food from outlying neighbours, including The Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House. Goods were paid for with coins left at the village boundaries in troughs of vinegar, thought to be disinfectant.

 I only became aware of Eyam’s self-sacrifice a few years ago while walking in the Peak District. Now, during lockdown, I wondered whether the events had been memorialised in poetry. Armitage, who lives and writes in Marsden, up at the northern end of the Peak, had indeed gone into verse. The result is an apparently plain-dealing piece called Lockdown, which turns out to be a subtle pairing of dreamt reflections on love and boundaries with, at its heart, the real and tragic instance of a local couple, Emmott Sydall and Rowland Torre, thwarted by the quarantine line.

 Not that Eyam escaped the determined embrace of Victorian sentiment. This is how the tragedy was revisited in Mary Howitt’s robust measures: “Oh! Piteous was it then that place to tread,/ Where children played and mothers had looked on….O’er each bright cottage hearth death’s darkness stole;/Tears fell, pangs racked, where happiness had shone.” 

 What of AIDS? Does it count as a plague? Perhaps only purists would deny it such status on technical grounds. Its treatment and survival rates have improved vastly since the onset of the pandemic in 1981, and yet in 2017 data produced by the US-based Foundation for AIDS Research showed that nearly 37 million people worldwide were living with HIV.

 What cannot be questioned is that the ubiquity of the illness produced an enormous outpouring of poetic response. Some of this was marked by an understandable defiance in the face of homophobia, but the predicaments it produced also gave rise to work of sublime candour and tenderness by authors who felt, well, plagued. Among the finest of these was Thom Gunn, British-born but resident in the US for almost all his adult life. He is best known for his 1992 poem, The Man With Night Sweats (and collection of the same name). It focuses unsparingly on a man who has developed AIDS symptoms, and it is one of seventeen elegies he wrote in response to the loss of close friends. 

  So where are the Covid poems? The answer is: where are they not? The web is groaning beneath their weight. Surely you’ve noticed. Not just poems brought on by the crisis, but poems to help you through it. Poems of hope, poems of endurance, poems of encouragement, poems of consolation.

 You catch me fresh from the National Poetry Library’s website. It is bursting and bountiful with matter as fresh as the spring. It’s almost, but not quite, enough to make you reckon that where there’s death, there’s hope. There’s ruminative and rueful, passionate and pacifist. Here is Christina Rossetti saying “Hurt no living thing,” and Pascale Petit saying “I have cleaned the window of my self until I gleam.” There’s also a poem called At The Beginning of Covid-19, which concludes with the line: “Nothing’s touching me anymore, and the spring rain is peace.” I get it.

 I’ve been at it myself, and maybe you have too. Do switch off now if you want, I shan’t be offended. Here it is anyway. I hope it speaks for itself, and if doesn’t, there’s something wrong with it. I wrote it an eternity ago – like, six or even seven weeks, when we were being told to not talk in case we infected someone; or to not breathe in case we took in some dodgy air. Something like that. (Bleaklow, by the way, is the highest bit of ground in the Dark Peak in Derbyshire, not all that far from Eyam as it happens.)

VALLEY OF BREATH

In a time of consonants kept caged,
And sentries put on point to stop and fine
Abusers of the new Percussive Quotas,
Ps and Qs for short;
When even vowels are agents of contagion,
Words huddle in the attic of the mind
And in this close confinement come to court
The liberty of thought.

The outside opens up. The terraced tiers
Are all of limestone pavement, and the towers
Are Kinder and its kindred in the Peak.
The built valleys of death
Evaporate, and in their place appear
The moorland gradients and the wind’s old choirs;
The ways across the swallowing bog, then Bleaklow’s
Gathering point of breath.

          ends

4 thoughts

  1. One of two poems during the period of lockdown against the Covid-19 virus.

    Half written in anger thinking of a conversation during the early months of the pandemic where a ‘friend’ claimed that the necessary safety action was ‘hysteria’.

    I have not yet been able to speak to him.

    The Eyes Above the Mask
    A reflection on BBC reports by Clive Myrie from The Royal London Hospital
    Late January 2021

    The eyes reveal the pain, the distress, the fatigue.
    Blue clad nurses struggle, on the edge of an abyss.
    Voices. Irish, Caribbean, English, Indian tell a story of sadness, fear, anger.
    Care and anxiety reflect in professionals’ eyes.

    In the chaos of the wards lies the reality of the task.
    Twelve of fifteen floors filled with Covid-19 patients.
    Teams of nurses ‘prone’ the sick. Relief.
    Oxygen starved lungs temporarily revived.

    Behind the masks, lies the sadness.
    Behind the masks, lies the anger.
    Behind the masks, lies the fear.
    Behind the masks, lies the care.
    Behind the masks, lies the will to save lives.
    Behind the masks, lie human beings, hiding their own frailties.

    The savage virus of neoliberalism rages unmasked.
    Beds removed, staff missing, the pockets of privateers overflowing.
    Profits burgeoning while the dead are wheeled into the mortuary fridge.
    And a senior mortician crumbles beneath the scale of it all, tearful, exposed. “This is how it makes me feel.”

    “This is madness” says the reporter.

    Quiet desperation accompanies the modulated tones behind his mask.
    Recognising the mighty effort needed from all. Hope.
    Humanity, strength, the light in this darkness.
    A trauma consultant now switched to Covid work.
    Comforting, yet angry eyes above his mask,
    “They’re wrong . . . I want to talk to them . . . show them.”

    The deniers.

    Dave Clinch

  2. Each Number – One Life
    Thoughts on the Covid-19 pandemic

    22 July 2020
    619,150 lives lost worldwide
    45,422 lives lost in Britain
    318,195 lives lost in the US
    1,754 lives lost in Eire

    Update 11 December 2020
    1,585,727 lives lost worldwide
    63,082 lives lost in Britain
    292,382 lives lost in the US
    2,117 lives lost in Eire

    Update 24 February 2021
    2,498,533 lives lost worldwide
    121,548 lives lost in Britain

    502,248 lives lost in the US
    4,205 lives lost in Eire

    Each number is one life
    Each number is one loved one
    Each number is one parent
    Each number is one child
    Each number is one sibling
    Each number is one grandparent
    Each number is one relative
    Each number is one friend
    Each number is one workmate
    Each number is one stone in the pond
    Each number is one ripple of grief
    Each number is one name
    Each number is one life lived
    Each number is loss
    Each number is one library of memory – gone
    Each number is a rebuke to craven politicians

    I first wrote this poem on 22 July. It’s not exhaustive of course. It can be added to if anyone wishes to do so. It’s intended merely as a reflection.

    In reporting the scale of loss of life there is no easy way to communicate the tragedy that each one of those numbers represents, especially when bound into the horrifying totals which are shown on tv screens and in other parts of the media

    There’s understandable hope when the so-called ‘curve’ is ‘flattened’ and the number of deaths fall day by day. Of course, the corollary is despair. The statistics, however, become an end in themselves and are in danger of being separated from the grief that lies behind each number. It’s not that I think that there is a deliberate intention to avoid each individual story.

    In December the announcement of the approval of several vaccines brought new hope in bringing the pandemic under control.

    It could be added that each one of these lives is likely to have been cared for by health workers, be they nurses, doctors or the myriad support staff needed to ensure such care. They have been paying a heavy price both physically, mentally and also disproportionately in terms of people of colour e.g., in the UK and in the US.

    While their courage and resilience is being honoured worldwide, recognition also has to come in the form of an appropriate salary for professional expertise and the conditions which have to be endured in caring for those who are sick.

    Dave Clinch

  3. I was thinking of how the past and the present are adjacent within a moment.

    ‘Ago’

    Centuries ago
    Years ago
    A few minutes ago

    In that word
    In its three letters
    Time encapsulated
    Lives, events compressed
    Into the past
    Just three letters
    ‘Ago’

    How often has that word been used?
    Coupled to some written or spoken measure of time
    Hours? Decades? Long ago?
    How easily are the feelings, anxieties, joys, memories
    Buried in the utterance of ‘ago’

    The past
    Now mere images projected on the brain
    Remembrances of love, of disputes
    The challenging of hatred and injustices
    The sensory experiences locked into a mere second of speech

    ‘Ago’

    A fragile shape, always following
    Carrying the weight of history
    Humanity’s existence

    Now, the present moves forward
    A permanent butting up to the future
    The past drifts away, ‘ago’
    A paradox
    What has been done
    What has been experienced
    Remembered within that spoken shape

    Such common usage of ‘ago’
    Belies the profound truths it shelters

    Whole lifetimes suspended within a word
    A word spoken with such facile frequency
    Yet ‘ago’ carries time with illusory ease
    And all that has filled the space of the present
    As it shifts inexorably forward
    And fades into the past

    Dave Clinch

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