Whiling away the time (Part 2)

It seemed appropriate given the circumstances to look at what poets have said about London and pestilence.  Actually I found it difficult to come up with anything very memorable so this piece mixes a modern poet's response to Corvid 19, a 16th century poet's view on the plague in London and whilst not about the 1918/19 influenza epidemic a poem written in 1918 by one of my favourite poets.

Here's the third, as yet, unpublished piece.

Poems of London

How are you doing in the “lockdown”? Able to get the shopping done and to stock up the cellar? Do you find Zoom, Team and WhatApp a boon or just something for others to worry about? This present pandemic made me wonder whether there were poems about plagues and especially their effect on London.

“I had a little bird
its name was Enza
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.”
(1918 children’s playground rhyme)

“Ring a Ring O’ Roses,
A pocketful of posies,
Atishoo! Atishoo!
We all fall down!”

“Ring a Ring O’ Roses” is said to be a macabre parody on the horrors of the Great Plague of London. One of the first signs of the plague was a ring of rose-coloured spots, and the protection against this terrible disease was, in popular belief, a posy of herbs. Sneezing was taken as a sure sign that you were about to die of it, and the last line “We all fall down” omits the word, “dead”!

Simon Armitage our Poet Laureate’s written about this “plague”. It’s not specifically about London but is in the context of the Great Plague of London of 1666. This appeared in The Guardian.


And I couldn’t escape the waking dream
of infected fleas
in the warp and weft of soggy cloth
by the tailor’s hearth
in ye olde Eyam.
Then couldn’t un-see
the Boundary Stone,
that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes,
thimbles brimming with vinegar wine
purging the plagued coins.
Which brought to mind the sorry story
of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre,
star-crossed lovers on either side
of the quarantine line
whose wordless courtship spanned the river
till she came no longer.
But slept again,
and dreamt this time
of the exiled yaksha sending word
to his lost wife on a passing cloud,
a cloud that followed an earthly map
of camel trails and cattle tracks,
streams like necklaces,
fan-tailed peacocks, painted elephants,
embroidered bedspreads
of meadows and hedges,
bamboo forests and snow-hatted peaks,
waterfalls, creeks,
the hieroglyphs of wide-winged cranes
and the glistening lotus flower after rain,
the air
hypnotically see-through, rare,
the journey a ponderous one at times, long and slow
but necessarily so.

We’re lucky that there aren’t that many plague poems. Here’s a few stanzas of a poem written about the plague outbreaks in London in the 1590s.

“The Triumph of Death”

 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 …

You get its drift…

I couldn’t find a poem relating to London and the 1918 Spanish Flu. However, 1918 gives the excuse to include a poem by Wilfred Owen written in that year and it's set in London.

I am the Ghost of Shadwell Stair

I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
Along the wharves by the water-house,
And through the cavernous slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.
Yet I have flesh both firm and cool,
And eyes tumultuous as the gems
Of moons and lamps in the full Thames
When dusk sails wavering down the pool.
Shuddering the purple street-arc burns
Where I watch always; from the banks
Dolorously the shipping clanks
And after me a strange tide turns.
I walk till the stars of London wane
And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
But when the crowing syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.

Shadwell Stairs and the Shadwell Basin lie within the heart of London’s Docklands, close to Wapping and the Prospect of Whitby public house.  Owen was 25 when he was killed near the end of WW1. Born in Oswestry, a brilliant poet he along with Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas represented the best of a generation of war poets.


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