Poetry in a Time of Plague

Daniel Swift

The coincidence of Coronavirus and National Poetry Month is perhaps fitting: for poetry as a form feels oddly suited to the demands of the moment. We speak of things going viral; a small poem is meme-sized, and stanzas may as well have been designed for circulation on social media. On Facebook and on Twitter, people share consoling lines from Seamus Heaney and Anna Akhmatova; there are jokes about whether this April is in fact the cruelest month. Poetry, insists the cliche, gives instruction and delight, but in these times it also offers a sense of history. As the classicist Mary Beard observed in the early weeks of the virus, western poetry begins with The Iliad and The Iliad begins with a plague. This longer view is comforting. In these disrupted times, old poems suggest that this is really part of a pattern, and that it will therefore pass.

A second wave of Coronavirus poetry has been those new poems written in response to lockdown and the strange conditions of our changed world. There was the widely circulated poem “Pandemic,” by Lynn Ungar, which suggested we might see lockdown as a kind of holy separation (“What if you thought of it/ as the Jews consider the Sabbath—/ the most sacred of times?”). I enjoyed the sly poem by Jessica Salfia composed from first lines of emails she’s received while in quarantine, which captures the oddity of the euphemistic, touchy-feely, and oddly corporate new language we have all fallen into:

In these uncertain times
as we navigate the new normal,
Are you willing to share your ideas and solutions?
As you know, many people are struggling.

In mid-April, the former British poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy launched an online project called “Write Where We Are Now,” which collects new poems written by established poets. Each poem is tagged with a date and the place of composition; the point is that these are immediate responses, and in them poets are trying out a new vocabulary, of lockdown, quarantine, virus as metaphors, as images. “My Uncle Zoltán/ had an eye for disasters” begins one by George Szirtes: “He’d watch them passing/ like a smear of crows.”

What both the old and new pandemic poems ask is: can a poem help with the pandemic? Or, put another way, is there any point to the aesthetic, to the world of art and beauty? Academic scholars tend instinctively to scorn the idea that a poem must give us comfort, must speak to us in a moment of need, or must even teach us a moral lesson. But, perhaps more than ever, that is precisely how people are reading and writing poetry right now. In these disrupted times in which much seems oddly old and yet so much is strangely new, the poem I have found myself most often thinking about is a brief lyric by Thomas Nashe, probably written in the summer of 1592 after an outbreak of plague in London. More than any other I know, Nashe’s poem considers carefully and almost-but-never-quite spiritually the conditions of living and reading in a plague-riven world. It is a great poem about plague, but it is also a great poem about the question of whether or not art can offer consolation in a time of plague. It isn’t a hugely comforting poem, but it might be a useful one.


“Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss,/ This world uncertain is,” it begins:

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!

The title varies, but the poem is most often called “A Litany in Time of Plague” when it appears in anthologies. A litany is a prayer that takes the form of a series of petitions followed by a communal response: here, the kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” So this is a poem passing as a prayer and it offers a generic spiritual wisdom. The things of this world are fleeting. Man is mortal. All will pass.

And yet: I’m no longer sure that is what it is saying, at all. I’ve always had my doubts about this poem but it has not been until rereading it in a time of pandemic and quarantine that I could work out why. Try as I might, I can’t make the poem say what it seems to want to. Take the first line, than which nothing could be simpler:

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss.

Why the repetition which is almost a double negative, adieu and farewell? If we can translate this line into modern English as “goodbye, goodbye, to the pleasures of the earth,” surely we can equally translate it as: “goodbye to God; earth is bliss.” As much as a renunciation, this poem is an embrace: of the world, of joy.

One might object: but this is the opposite of what the poem appears to be saying. It goes on: “This world uncertain is.” Again, the simple teaching: this world is unreliable and we must not depend upon it or pretend to master it. And yet, again: the whole point of the sentiment behind the poem is that we can and do know this world’s determined end. It must collapse, and this alone is certain. When I read this line I long for it to say “certain” not “uncertain.” Pandemic is a season of loud certainty, conspiracy theories, blame; an age of the appeal to science and also of the rapid politicization of science as all forms of knowledge are overloaded with need and desire. Uncertainty is more difficult to bear as it might permit something else; and Nashe’s poem keeps permitting something else. Now the poem turns to life and death. These are opposites, of course, black and white, true and false, but the poetic device plays against even that oversimplification. Here, Death arrives in a cloud of personification. He is male, he has darts, which he shoots; and personification is bringing to life.

This might be a long way around to saying that the poem isn’t any good, but I’m not sure that quite covers it. What this slowed-down and perhaps over-literal reading—a kind of lockdown reading, a 2020 encounter with 1592 sentiment—reveals is the fractured, contradictory nature of the poem. And this is its strength, why it bears rereading now. The poet holds up the cliches of consolation, that which we are supposed to think in a time of plague; and finds them somehow unconvincing. There is always a dissident reading, another voice. The poem is six stanzas, each of the same form: three rhyming couplets followed by a single indented plea which interrupts the rhyme scheme and introduces a new tone:

I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

From the “I” to the “us”; from the individual to the community; and they do not rhyme. The paradox of lockdown is that it breaks community into isolated figures in order to preserve that community; or it builds a community of individuals insisting upon their separateness, their distinctiveness, as a communal act. The distinctions between groups, between the individual and the community: these are the great questions behind all discussions of worldly politics, and of language, and they are also the point at which politics and language must begin. A time of plague is also, Nashe’s poem observes, a time to rethink the relations between the one and the many.

“Lord, have mercy on us!”: the great scholar of Renaissance literature Katherine Duncan-Jones notes that these words appeared in large red letters on posters stuck to the walls of London during sixteenth-century outbreaks of the plague. COVID-19 isn’t bubonic plague, of course, but the analogy between the two is irresistible, and Nashe’s poem is thinking about the metaphoric and literal relationships between apparently disparate things. The voice of prayer can interrupt a poem; and a metaphorical sickness, of sin and soul, plays against a specific sickness of this world. I think we are still doing this now, each time we analyze or try to understand the current virus in moral or political terms. We are taking sickness and turning it into a metaphor. This habit is perhaps one symptom of a style of plague thinking, and it’s one that Nashe’s poem performs. One one hand, the poem notes, we live in an unfair world, in which society is divided by money. “Rich men, trust not in wealth,” it instructs, for “Gold cannot buy you health.” And on the other hand, the plague is profoundly uninterested in worldliness, in our ways of knowing or thinking. It continues:

Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by.

All things are temporary, even the plague itself. This is the heart of this poem’s skewed, secular, amoral morals: a refusal to look, with any conviction, at any world outside this one.

This is a surprising lesson to draw from a poem written in 1592, but almost everything here doesn’t do quite what we expect it to. The poem’s most famous lines come from the third stanza:

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air.

It is a strange and powerful image, opaque in its sense: is it the end of the day, as dusk comes down? It is also—and this is its great problem—an image of remarkable poetic beauty. So while we are told that time’s wrinkles will devour beauty we witness and participate in the opposite: which is the survival of beauty purely because it is beautiful. There are several ways to unpack this specific image, none of them satisfactory. The Elizabethans believed that disease fell down to us from above; so here Nashe is reversing this idea by suggesting that brightness and beauty, not sickness, are falling down. Falling is of course the great Christian movement, and the angel Lucifer, the light-bringer, fell, as did Adam and Eve; but all that baggage stands behind the poem in a kind of half-forgotten background. And in the foreground, beauty: the beauty of this, our world, in empty city streets, in abandoned parks, interrupting our time of moral seriousness, of privation and loss.

There are three further stanzas to the poem, and each carries on the riddling dance. “Haste, therefore, each degree,/ To welcome destiny” instructs the final stanza, for we must rush to learn the lesson before it is too late, but the poem as a whole moves slowly, roundly, never getting anywhere. Slow down; say the words together; Lord, have mercy on us. Is this enough? A poem whose most famous image is of falling is also a great account of suspension: of holding old ideas up to the light and asking, will this one do; of thinking about what comes, about what we will keep and what will stay put away.


Nashe’s poem is a document of its time but that does not mean it cannot also belong to ours. Perhaps most powerfully, the poem expresses the tension between a moment and eternity, or between the minute of its saying and its repetition in the voices of many.

The poem has long circulated and been reprinted, in subtly shifting forms. It was published as a freestanding lyric in late Elizabethan poetry anthologies. Its title changes. In the 1919 Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, it was named “In Time of Pestilence” and given the date 1593; scholars now generally accept that it was written in 1592, after a particularly violent outbreak of plague late that summer. But it was first written not as a poem but as a “Song” in Nashe’s only play, Summer’s Last Will and Testament. This is an odd text, to modern eyes: not really a play at all but something closer to a pastoral interlude in which the characters are called Summer, Autumn, and Winter, and in which the action is interrupted by songs and dances. These symbolic characters offer moral lessons in the transitoriness of all things. One song has the chorus: “From winter, plague, & pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.” Watching these changing seasons is another more cynical character, based upon the real-life clown Will Summers, who offers a running ironic commentary. “I promise you truly, I was almost asleep,” he observes at one point: “I thought I had been at a sermon.”

Nashe’s play provided the original context for his poem, and in combination these return us to an older style of thinking that echoes with today. In early modern England, plague was understood to be seasonal: not a simple disruption in nature but part of the passage of the seasons. It was, for Elizabethans, a summertime disease, and it tended to diminish once autumn gave way to winter’s colder weather. This made quarantine—the period of separation during outbreaks—appear to some as a grotesque parody of a holiday. Ben Jonson’s great play The Alchemist (1610) is set in London in autumn, in the final weeks of an outbreak of plague which has caused the wealthy to flee the city for the safety of their country estates. In one grand house the servants, who have been left behind by the owner, run a series of increasingly farcical scams. They know that this must end as soon as the plague abates and the owner returns, but while he is away they are on what they describe as a “holy-day” or “festival,” in which the normal rules of obligation and honest work no longer apply. What for some is the end of the world feels to others like a holiday; this play’s insight is no less true today, as in London and New York the wealthy have left the cities when they can, to isolate in holiday homes. This is a grand social injustice as it divides some parts of society from others; but when we speak of flattening the curve, and follow the mortality figures each day, we are all still looking for patterns in the pandemic. We are still seeing it as a season, and hoping for a cycle.

This is what it means to read the poetry of four hundred years ago. Inevitably we pick out the elements which sound like today, and inevitably we discard or overlook others. But what the distance of centuries permits is the imagination of slightly different ways of thinking through our current time of trouble. All things pass quickly, Nashe’s poem tells us; but some things remain.

Daniel Swift teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London. His first book, Bomber County, was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, and his essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the New Statesman, and Harper’s Magazine.