Diseases, Devastation and Poetry


John Keats’ famous tubercular metaphors of ‘twittering’ and ‘swallows’ in ‘To Autumn’ is one of the number of poems about sickness. It seems apposite to visit some of the better ones in the age of the pandemic.

Poetry about disease is an aesthetic transformation of suffering, even death. Arthur Frank writes in The Wounded Storyteller:

“The ill body is certainly not mute – it speaks eloquently in pains and symptoms – but it is inarticulate. We must speak for the body …”

The poet and her/his persona is at once a spectacle and a specimen. The speaker views and aestheticises the body as a spectacle. Woven into this rhetoric of spectacular bodies, designed by disease or the process of dying, is a rhetoric of becoming a specimen too: as an example of what happens to a body through disease, decay and death.

The poet seeks to make the diseased body talk. This requires dealing with a tension between two questions : ‘do I have a body or am I a body?’ (Frank).  So John Donne’s ‘Hymn to God in My Sickness’ is an exploration of the sick condition and anticipation of death:

“Whilst my physicians by their love are grown 

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie 

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown 

That this is my south-west discovery,” 

 Using the analogy of the map, Donne sees the physician as an explorer, and his body a passive ground for exploration. He represents himself as watching his bodily states being studied, specimen-like, by doctors, but Donne also becomes a spectacle:


“Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are 

The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem? 

We think that Paradise and Calvary, 

Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place; 

Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me; 

As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face, 

May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.”

An inventory of places and names, all merge symptomatically in Donne’s ailing body, making it a spectacle. He is a body (and hence a specimen), but he also wishes to say that he has a body (to be viewed under certain conditions, hence a spectacle).

The Beautiful Sufferer

The ill body appears like an Other to the self in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Fever 103°’. Plath’s speaker claims that in her fever, she is now ‘pure acetylene’. It will not be just her fever rising, it is her self:

“I think I am going up,

I think I may rise –”

Plath generates what Kathlyn Conway (Illness and the Limits of Expression) terms ‘the myth of the beautiful sufferer’, a person who ‘remains physically beautiful even when ravaged by illness’:

“I am a lantern

 my gold beaten skin

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Does not my heat astound you! And my light!

Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.”

Plath sees her body as transcending into a higher plane of being, becoming radiant light.

Plath’s metaphors point to the poetic tension between the ‘self-intimating aspect of pain and [the] knowledge about pain’ (Benjamin Fink). They are attempts to evolve the language of pain itself, in a socio-cultural context. Plath invokes the radiation sickness in Hiroshima:

“Greasing the bodies of adulterers

Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.”

How is an individual’s ague comparable to the radiation sickness of Hiroshima’s victims? Is the wounded self of Plath’s speaker gesturing at a larger biomedical victim-hood generated by political decisions?

Disease is interpreted within social frames, and Plath’s comparison signals a cultural pathology. Plath mirrors her-self with the Hiroshima victims. She merges her subjective history with an effective history, where ‘effective history is necessary in order to demonstrate discontinuity and rupture at the sociocultural level … illness narratives [and their affective history] also demonstrate discontinuity and rupture at the subjective and intersubjective level’ (Lisa Diedrich, Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness).

Plath’s emphasis on radiance is a manifesto of the recuperative self, which refuses to see the self as diminished by disease. It recalls Audre Lorde’s ‘Today is Not the Day’:

“I can’t just sit here
staring death in her face
blinking and asking for a new name

by which to greet her

I am not afraid to say

I am dying
but I do not want to do it

looking the other way”

Moral Lessons

When such an Othering is not possible, poets invoke a moral component to suffering. Writing during the notorious plague, Thomas Nashe says in ‘A Litany in the Time of the Plague’:

“Rich men, trust not in wealth

Gold cannot buy you health”

‘Fair’ queens died young, and even Helen of Troy was mortal. Nashe says:

“The plague full swift goes by,

I am sick, I must die.”

The lines ‘I am sick, I must die’ is a refrain throughout the poem. The rich, the powerful and the beautiful all eventually grow old, decay and die – this is the moral.

For Langston Hughes, there is a moral in witnessing sickness. He writes in ‘Sick Room’:

“A silent woman lies between two lovers-
Life and Death,
And all three covered with a sheet of pain.” 

Pain separates life from death, suggests Hughes.

When the moral is obscure and the etiology of a disease difficult to comprehend, the natural explanation is: divine causes. When England’s greatest poet of his age went blind, he wrote:

“Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide”

Continuing the thought, John Milton in ‘On His Blindness’, asks if he can serve his Creator practise his craft when blind:

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

He comforts himself that God does not require man’s labour, and that ‘they also serve those who only stand and wait’.

Moral discourses inveigle themselves into poetry. William Blake in ‘The Sick Rose’ speaks in metaphors of a pathogenic end to even something as beautiful as a rose:

“O Rose thou art sick. 

The invisible worm, 

That flies in the night 

In the howling storm: 

Has found out thy bed 

Of crimson joy: 

And his dark secret love 

Does thy life destroy.”

The worm/pathogen arrives as a loving guest and due to an excess of desire for the host, destroys the host. The guest is, ironically, hostile to the host precisely because the guest enters the host as an act of love (etymologically ‘host’ is hostis, meaning both ‘guest’ and ‘enemy’). The pathogen/lover/worm is usurious: it is the over-interest in using the host’s body, that destroys the host.

Keats, whose poems, perhaps, acquired greater posthumous fame due to the attractively macabre event of his early death, offers unusual metaphors in his ‘To Autumn’. He speaks of clamminess, implying feverishness, in flowers. As Alan Bewell notes, the entire description is of over-ripeness:

“fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,”

This account, for Bewell, conjures up not temperate England, but a tropical condition of overripe fruits and overgrown vegetation and high temperatures. It reflects, he suggests, a cultural anxiety over the tropicalisation of England.

Those ailing, or survivors, are often haunted by their previous experience. Emily Dickinson speaks of a ‘convalescent Mind’ in her ‘As One Does Sickness Over’. The recovered person recalls and ‘rewalks a Precipice’, the memory of sickness and how a twig ‘Held him from Perdition’.

For others, sick-leave induces. Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Sick-Leave’ speaks of a soldier, perhaps wounded, haunted by dead comrades asking:

“Why are you here with all your watches ended?”

He believes that he is wrong to be staying away from the war even if injured and asks himself:

“When are you going out to them again?”

Poetry, Witnessing, Politics

Watching the suffering of a loved one could run the risk of making them the object, quiescently ill and passive. Critics have asked: is there (not) a voyeurism at work when we aestheticise a sick body?

When Donald Hall watches his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, undergoing chemo in hospital, the account is distanced:

“Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.”

When Elizabeth Bishop visits the poet Ezra Pound, arrested for treason after World War II and incarcerated in St Elizabeth’s Hospital, the result is ‘Visits to St Elizabeth’s’. She describes Pound as a ‘talkative’, ‘tedious’, ‘honoured’,  ‘wretched’ man. The speaker notes the tragedy of a poet playing many roles in the ‘house of Bedlam’ – Bedlam being, of course, the famous mental health hospital of England.

He is first ‘weeping’ as he dances down the corridor, then is ‘joyful’, and finally ‘careful’. Bishop refuses to focus on Pound’s medical condition or bodily states: the recurring references to the Jew imply there is more to the imprisonment:

“This is a Jew in a newspaper hat

that dances carefully down the ward,

walking the plank of a coffin board

with the crazy sailor

that shows his watch

that tells the time

of the wretched man

that lies in the house of Bedlam.”

In witness texts such as ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Keats writes:

“The weariness, the fever, and the fret 

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;”

These images of sickness, pain and death are hospital scenes.

Watching suffering, especially of loved ones who no longer recognise their family, friends or caregivers generates poetic images too. In Candace Pearson’s poem about her mother’s dementia, ‘Another Country’, she writes:

“But sometime in the night

Nouns had disappeared and when she tried

To say clock, it came out: thing that goes round.

She had thought nouns might be the last

To go, naming carried that much weight.”

Pearson says:

“No doubt surprised to find she had crossed over

To another country, one with no road signs, towns

Without title, maps merely lines and elevations.”    

A different example of poetry about witnessing disease is Tony Harrison’s Black Daisies for the Bride – a poem sequence on Alzheimer’s patients in High Royd’s hospital.

Filmed in the hospital with the lines of poetry interleaved with the patient’s voices and actions, it accentuates the loss of words among the patients. Dramatising the loss, the film portrays a younger version of one such patient, Kath, singing:

“Nothing of that

None of it stays, motorbiking, mountaineering

Lost in days I won’t see clearing

Those long green vistas all grey.”

Clearly, poetry has a lot to say about biomedical conditions, individual and collective, the corporeal or cognitive destruction of the person. In the devastation that diseases bring, those with a capacity for words, turn to them for not just solace or courage, but for understanding. The poet Tess Gallagher concludes her ‘Across the Border’ with an image that serves us well today:

“Now we know why the old women

Are lighting candles in the dark alcove

Of the church, kindling a wavering city

Of light, white candle burning next to white

Candle. Maybe that’s the trace hope leaves

When it’s emptied out by crude events – reduced

To a sign, a silent cry made of light.”  

In a time when prophylactics jostle with prophecies, therapeutics with terror, poetry is ‘a silent cry made of light’.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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