April may be the cruellest month, but in the garrets and studies where the masses in New Zealand dwell by governmental decree, we’re apparently spoilt for choice.
Every article worth its salt these lockdown days seems to be enjoining us to use this opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the apparently great body of pandemic prose and poetry or else, who knows, perhaps even cobble together a plague memoir of our own.
I tried the memoir idea for a bit, but quickly realised my entries had much of a muchness about them:
Dear Pandemic Diary, Today I got up and scrolled through the news. It all looked rather ghastly. Later on I drank a bottle of red wine, accidently fell down the stairs and was saved by 200 rolls of stockpiled toilet paper.
So what about the efforts of others?
Daniel Defoe’s 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year, which offers a play-by-play account of the 1665 bubonic plague in London, is usually offered as a useful place to start. I tried reading some of it, but to be honest it’s sort of depressing. Also, without wishing to give away the final twist, it ends pretty badly, too.
That way too goes Albert Camus in his much-recommended fictional treatment from 1947 of pestilence-ridden 19th century Algeria intriguingly titled The Plague. In a nutshell, the plot goes something like this: Everybody is alive and happy. The children are playing gaily in the fields. Then the plague comes along. Everyone dies.
Somebody else, in the Guardian, I think, asks if I realise that Shakespeare penned King Lear while in self-imposed isolation. No, as a matter of fact I did not. What am I actually supposed to do with this amazing but prima facie useless nugget of historical information? Compose a sonnet full of sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not? Jacinda Ardern is already doing that for us every afternoon at her daily briefings in the New Zealand capital.
The subject of poetry, now that it has been raised, takes us to the fact that this is National Poetry Month, with the Poetry Society of New Zealand similarly urging us to mark the diseased moment and ‘come together in cyberspace to celebrate poets and poetry’.
What better one to start with than the poem that begins by reminding its readers that April is indeed the cruellest month of all?
We all know T. S. Eliot’s opening line in The Waste Land. It’s the drumroll for the toplofty toff’s most important and influential work and indeed the curtain- raiser for all modernist poetry. And it’s true, I suppose, when you think about it in a certain way, you can freight a lot of its memorable descriptions into our own emergency.
Those lilacs growing out of dead land that Eliot writes about might just as well have traces of Covid-19. The clairvoyant with the ‘bad cold’ trying to make sense of what’s happening across all of Europe could easily be thinking about corona. Also the frightened crowds ‘undone by death’ surging through the fog-lidded streets of England. Elsewhere, The Waste Land ticks off the names of cities battling a remorseless yet invisible enemy: Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London. Unreal. You’d swear the writer is creatively grappling with something eerily similar to our own pathogen.
Actually, he was.
Even some of The Waste Land’s biggest fans sometimes forget it was composed in the middle of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. And its author was only too familiar with the catastrophe of the disease that killed as many as twenty-five times the number of people who died in the recently concluded world war.
Eliot, who had just turned thirty, experienced the Spanish flu first-hand. He was in terrible shape. Some of The Waste Land’s most memorable lines first came to him while he was recuperating. His wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, also had it. Ezra Pound, his editor, got the bug as well and it would be some time before he regained sufficient strength to help kick the work into shape for its public debut in The Criterion four years later.
So yes, The Waste Land is a pandemic poem of sorts. But it’s also not a pandemic poem because Eliot never billed it that way, never reflected on it as such and never invited others to think of it in these terms. His biographers have generally obliged. In An Imperfect Life, one of the more recent and most authoritative of the studies of the author, the influenza outbreak is barely mentioned as the author Lyndall Gordon masterfully excavates the poem.
There seems to be a wider lesson in this somewhere — and Eliot wasn’t the only journalist (as he tended to describe himself) to have imparted it.
Take George Orwell, an impressionable teenager in 1918, who went on to write about nearly everything he deemed important. The great plague of his youth, however, he refers to only glancingly here and there; by no means could it be described as ever having been a major theme of his.
Another loquacious contemporary, Malcolm Muggeridge, had nothing much to say about it either, not even in the diaries of his that were later published. Others, including most of the visual artists of the era, followed similar suit, treating the medical carnage as a historical footnote at best — the ‘pastness of the past,’ in Eliot’s phrase.
Why the lack of interest? It’s not that these young intellectuals were somehow impervious to death. Especially not the strain of it carried by the Spanish flu, with its insatiable appetite for those like them who were aged in their teens and 20s.
Possibly — who knows? — Eliot had something completely different in mind when designating this as the cruellest month.
Sure, the world then was economically shuttered and medically challenged rather like our own. The burial of the dead was in full swing. But the actual cruelty at issue, in northern hemisphere terms at least, is that the world itself remained a beautiful place, the fields springing to life, as they do in April, in a tidal wave of floral colour, soft spring rain and pretty young women. How cruel it is to miss all of this when you’re following anyone’s advice to pass the time in the morose company of pandemic prose and poetry.
Look out the window of the garret instead, Eliot and those like him seem to be saying to us from long ago, and just behold. Here comes the hyacinth girl.
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