I have a strange tendency to search things I wouldn’t normally look up when something tragic happens in the world. In times of COVID-19, I have a desire to research history of diseases and what people did in reaction to them. However, I’m not going to bore you all with that, but instead, I’m going to list seven old poems about plagues themselves! Just to give you all something more to read while we’re social distancing at home.
image via all poetry
1. Thomas Nashe, ‘a litany in time of plague’
Nashe wrote this poem in 1593, when an outbreak of bubonic plague closed the London playhouses. Nashe says that it doesn’t matter who you are, the plague can sicken you and kill you, which is really morbid but true. Anyone can get sick. The refrain at the end of each stanza – ‘Lord, have mercy on us!’ – is a strike against the heart of the desperation and anxiety over the disease.
image via llewelyn morgan
2. lucretius, de rerum natura
The ancient Roman poet Lucretius wrote this didactic poem, whose title translates as ‘On The Nature of Things.’ Lucretius’ poem sets out to explain the Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience, but he finishes the poem with the Plague of Athens when he starts:
‘Twas such a manner of disease, ’twas such
Mortal miasma in Cecropian lands
Whilom reduced the plains to dead men’s bones…
The poem includes a rather disturbing description of the plague affecting the people, so if you don’t want to feel squeamish, you could skip this one. Or don’t, up to you!
image via leyland and goding
3. John Davies, ‘The triumph of death’
Another poem the bubonic plague, Davies’ poem illustrates the lockdown that villages were put under in London during the 1590s as well as the size of the destruction it caused when he says:
London now with vapors 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.—
4. Mary Latter, ‘Soliloquy XVI’
Mary Latter (1725-77) was an English poet, essayist and playwright who gave us this dramatic evocation of living in a time of ‘Contagion’ (published in 1759). This poem seems to have a very critical tone of the two people it’s directed at, and the mood is very dark with the various adjectives used to describe their actions.
image via times of malta
5. murdo young, antonia
Young (c. 1790-1870) was a Scottish newspaper editor who edited The Sun (an older newspaper) and also wrote poetry that has largely been forgotten. 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.
image via lebrecht music and arts photo library
6. Christina Rossetti, ‘the plague’
Rossetti (1830-1894) captures the terrifying suddenness of the plague and how fast it began spreading. One line, “Then all is over. With a careless chuck / Among his fellows cast,” shows how many people died to the point where body collectors became so unaffected they were tossing bodies as if they were mere objects. It’s a disturbing image, to say the least, considering how we respect those who have died.
image via poetry foundation
7. Tim Dlugos, ‘my death’
A short, four line poem about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Dlugos’ poem becomes even more poignant considering that he died from AIDS complications after publishing this poem. The link above is an interesting article by John McIntyre, where he displays Dlugos’ poem and talks about it.
featured image via ancient origins
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