Pandemics Have Always Inspired Poetry

Life and art are interconnected as are the past and present. When confronted with the harshness of reality, we try to remember what others went through during similar events in the past. We try to take inspiration from their survival. Certainly we take it from the words they left behind. It should come as little surprise that poets never let a good crisis go to waste — and a devastating pandemic is as good a crisis as any.

One poem called Cholera from the modern era is a testament to the horrors of even worse outbreaks. It reads:

It is dawn.

Listen to the footsteps of the passerby,

in the silence of the dawn.

Listen, look at the mourning processions,

ten, twenty, no… countless.

Everywhere lies a corpse, mourned

without a eulogy or a moment of silence.

Humanity protests against the crimes of death.

Cholera is the vengeance of death.

Even the gravedigger has succumbed,

the muezzin is dead,

and who will eulogize the dead?

O Egypt, my heart is torn by the ravages of death.

Another work of poetry called Night Visitor evokes images of love, stress, and darkness in the face of inevitable death.  An Iraqi named Ahmed bin al-Hussein al-Kindi wrote it sometime during the 10th century after contracting a fever in Egypt. It reads:

For she does not pay her visits save under cover of darkness,

I freely offered her my linen and my pillows,

But she refused them, and spent the night in my bones.

My skin is too contracted to contain both my breath and her,

So she relaxes it with all sorts of sickness.

When she leaves me, she washes me

As though we had retired apart for some forbidden action.

It is as though the morning drives her away,

And her lachrymal ducts are flooded in their four channels.

I watch for her time without desire,

Yet with the watchfulness of the eager lover.

You can understand why many of us turn to these poems today. The novel coronavirus is extremely infectious and has a higher fatality rate than the seasonal flu, but many American citizens haven’t even begun to take the virus — or the disease it causes, COVID-19 — seriously. That failure will result in even more emotional pain as the cases, and eventual deaths, continue to mount. 

The best we can do is continue to share information, take care of one another, and explore works from the past in order to better cope with the present!