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Abstract

The Spanish flu does not have a powerful hold on cultural memory. As an illness, it erases the collective suffering; as a virus, it offers a degenerate body. This essay will explore representations of the 1918 pandemic in poetry by using three poems: Voigt's Kyrie, Eliot's The Wasteland and Williams's Spring and All. The impact of the flu on these three poems not only consists of its material effects, but also resides in its metaphoric potential. Influenza provides an entry into modernist discourses across disciplines literature, science, sociology, medicine that are concerned with reconceptualising bodies of all kinds. The poems discussed in this paper echo the narrative of survivors from both the war and the flu who felt stranded in a state of existence describable as a "living death", a state in which one was not dead, but not quite alive, either. Surrounded by so many who were dying, the living often felt only half alive. The pervasive feeling of being on the threshold of life and death, and of confrontation between life and death, captures this particular historical moment on both literal and metaphorical levels. These poems also serve as contributors to modernist conceptions of the drudgery of everyday life during a pandemic and represent a factual description of what it was like to remain alive in 1919. They capture in their very silences both acknowledged horrors and horrors that remain unspoken.
OriginalArticle
MariellaScerri,MA1,VictorGrech,MD,PhD2
Representationsofthe1918pandemicinpoetry
1PhDMedicalHumanitiescandidate,2ConsultantPaediatrician(Cardiology),MaterDei
Hospital,Malta.
CorrespondingAuthor:
MsMariellaScerri,
18,York,N.CaruanaDingliStreet,MelliehaMLH1709,Malta
email:mariellascerriathotmaildotcom
Citethisarticleas:ScerriM,GrechV.Representationsofthe1918pandemicinpoetry.RHiME.2020;7:2008.
Submitted:02AUG2020 Accepted:03SEP2020 Published:06OCT2020
www.rhime.in 200
Abstract:The Spanishfludoesnot haveapowerfulhold onculturalmemory.Asanillness, it
erasesthecollective suffering;asa virus,itoffersa degeneratebody.Thisessay willexplore
representationsofthe1918pandemicinpoetrybyusingthreepoems:Voigt’sKyrie,Eliot’sThe
WastelandandWilliams’sSpring andAll.Theimpactofthefluon these threepoemsnotonly
consistsof itsmaterial effects,butalso resides inits metaphoricpotential. Influenza provides
anentryintomodernistdiscoursesacrossdisciplinesliterature,science,sociology,medicine
that are concerned with reconceptualising bodies of all kinds. The poems discussed in this
paperechothenarrativeofsurvivorsfromboththewarandthefluwhofeltstrandedinastate
ofexistence describableas a“living death”,a state inwhich onewas notdead, butnot quite
alive,either.Surroundedby somany whowere dying,the livingoften feltonly halfalive.The
pervasivefeelingofbeingonthethresholdoflifeanddeath,andofconfrontationbetween life
and death, captures this particular historical moment on both literal and metaphorical levels.
Thesepoemsalsoserveascontributorstomodernistconceptionsofthedrudgeryofeveryday
lifeduringapandemicandrepresentafactualdescriptionofwhatitwasliketoremainalivein
1919.Theycapture intheir verysilences bothacknowledged horrorsand horrorsthat remain
unspoken.
Key words:1918 pandemic, Health humanities, Medical humanities, Modernist literature,
Poetry
Introduction
Catherine Belling averred that “The
memories of influenza, it seems, are
surreal, and to write them is to write
nonsenseordreamsorpoetry.Perhapsthis
meant that even those who might vividly
describeinjuriestothebody(suchasthose
caused by war) would have found
themselves incapable of representing to
others the experience of having the flu”.[1]
Theturmoilcausedbyinfluenza’sfeverand
its hallucinations, and the incredible pain
and difficulty of breathing sapped away
both mental and physical energy, leaving
littleroom for selfexpressionthroughartor
literature.Estimates ofthe deathtollforthe
1918pandemic range between20 and100
million[2],yetwithfluonedidnotdieinthe
serviceofagreatcause– onesimply died.
“English,whichcanexpressthethoughtsof
Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no
words for the shiver and the headache”,
Virginia Woolfwrote in her1926essayOn
Being Ill”.[3] Woolf had witnessed the
Spanish flu’s impact first hand. On 20
October1918, shepenned inher diary “we
are…in the midst of a plague unmatched
sincetheBlackDeath”.[4]Laterinher1925
book Mrs Dalloway, set in the aftermath of
World War I, she described the lasting
trauma of war and of the illness that
succeeded it. “This late age of the world’s
experience had bred in them all, all men
and women, a well of tears” [5], she
refl ected . “Tea rs and  sorrow s, cour age an d
endurance, a perfectly upright and stoical
bearing”.[5]
Unlike the Great War that preceded it but
also intersected with it, the Spanish flu
does not possess a powerful hold on
cultural memory. Scholars suggest that the
depravity of the war significantly aided the
spread of the disease, while others have
argued that the hastened end of the war
(and subsequent peace treaty) was
influenced by the pandemic.[6] As Paul
Fussell observes in The Great War and
Modern Memory, “the war that was called
Great, invades the mind…” [7] and that
“wardetachesitselffromitsnormallocation
in chronology and its accepted set of
causes and effects all pervading, both
internal a nd external at once, the essential
con dition  of cons ciousn ess in t he twen tieth
century”.[7]The“GreatInfluenza”,itseems,
made for a far less compelling story.[8]
This essay will explore representations of
the1918pandemicinpoetrybyusingthree
poems: Voigt’sKyrie,Eliot’sThe Wasteland
and Williams’s Spring and All. The impact
of the flu on these three poems not only
consists of its material effects, but also
resides in its metaphoric potential.
Influenza provides a platform for
interdisciplinary discourse  literature,
science, sociology, medicine – and serves
as a conceptual framework.[9] As an
illness, iterases the collective suffering; as
a virus, it offers a degenerate body. “Its
figurative role, then, parallels other facets
of modernity that cast doubt upon the
integrity of units  the human subject, the
family, the community  once considered
natural”.[9]
PersonifyingTragedy:Kyrie
Ellen Bryant Voigt’s booklength sonnet
sequence, Kyrie, remains one of the major
works about the 1918 influenza pandemic.
[10] Voigt's poetry has reflected her endless
questtounitehertwoartisticimpulses:music
and story telling, and her work as a whole
recites her need and  "will to change".[11]
Both the settings and characters in the
poemsimply the localbut hermajor concern
isuniversal:“choiceandfate,andthetension
between them that constitutes human life”.
[11]
Inspired by her father’s childhood as an
orphan during the 1918 pandemic, Voigt
wanted to portray in Kyrie the irony of life.
She had no particular interest in the
pandemic, however, it occurred to her that
her father’s circumstances would resonate
with many others who had survived it, its
main victims having been young adults.[11]
Kyrie is a booklong sequence of rough,
unrhymed sonnets that vary considerably in
syntax and in rhetorical emphasis. Some
speak in the first person, some are letters
home, while others speak through the third
person. To personalise the influenza
pandemic of 1918, Voigt engages in various
literary devices. The title, “Kyrie”, is derived
fromtheGreekword“OLord”,andtherather
common name is associated with Christian
prayer. The title echoes a personal prayer,
andservestosymbolisethecircumstancesof
thecharactersinthepoems.[12]
Kyrieleapsfromoneexpressivemoment,
caughtlikeasnapshot,toanother,
eschewingbutimplyingaconnecting
narrative.Theindividualsonnetsoften
www.rhime.in 201
achieveamutedeloquencethatlendsthe
subjectamonumentalsolemnity:
"Tobebroughtfromthebrightschoolyardinto
thehouse:
tostandbyherbedlikeananimalstunnedin
thepen:
againstthegridofthequilt,herhandseems
stitchedtothecuffofitssleevealthoughhe
wants
mosturgentlythehandtostrokehishead,
althoughhethinkshecouldkneeldown
thatitwouldneedtotravelonlyinches
tobrushlikeabreathhisflushedcheek,
hedoesn'tstir:allhisresolve,
allhisresourcesgointowatchingher,
hermouth,herhairapillowofblackened
ferns–
hemeanstomatchherstillnessbonefor
bone.
Nearbyhehearstheyoungerchildrencry,
andhisauntslikecarelessthieves,outinthe
kitchen."
The subject of the pandemic flu gives the
writer good reason to wallow in coughedup
blood and bile, yet in Kyrie, Voigt almost
entirely avoids the grotesque imagery that
marks some of her earlier work. Instead, a
long historical perspective overshadows and
dignifiesthe workina mannerunavailable to
the personal lyric.[12]  Voigt depicts the flu
epidemic as an extension of the Great War,
thediseaseamutatedstrainofthehorrorthat
had already sickened the world and
weakened its resistance to death.[12] She
reminds us that war changes the world
forever:
“Andsothearmiescouldbedonewithwar,
andsoldierstrickledhometostudypeace.
Buttheoldgardensgrewatoughnewweed,
andtheoldUvesdidn'tfitastheyhad
before,
andwherethere'dbeenthedream,a
stranger'sface,
andwherethere'dbeenthewar,anempty
sleeve”.
In the second section, Voigt deals directly
with the circumstances people lived through.
Shewrites
"You wiped a feverbrow, you burned the
cloth.
You scrubbed a sickroom floor, you burned
themap,
What wouldn’t burn you boiled like apple
sauce."
Her descriptions are evocative, sensual and
exact. Similarly, her rhythms are controlled
and taut, fitting her subject expertly. In the
shorter first and third sections, where Voigt
workstobuildacontextbeyondthepersonal,
the tension slightly slackens.[12] The voices
are not as distinct or gripping as those that
speakoftheimmediateordeal:
"Sincewehadnolambs
Icutthecat’sthroat,Xedthedoor,
Andputthecarcassouttodrawtheflies.
I raised an upstairs window and watched
themgo,
swollen, shiny, black, greenblacked, green
eyed,
fleeing the house, taking the sickness with
them."
The lines “Since we had no lambs, I cut the
cat’s throat, Xed the door,” appear to be a
direct reference to the Passover Ritual
described during the Jewish Exile in Egypt
when the blood of the lamb applied to the
doorposts and lintels of the house protected
the household from the wrath of God which
struckdown“everyfirstbornoftheland,both
man and beast”.[13] It is also reflective of a
general helplessness in the face of such a
huge tragedy against which there appeared
to be no effective human intervention.
Pandemics lift the veil off of humankind’s
frailty and strike indiscriminately.[14] The
overwhelminganguishproducedbythedeath
of so many in so short a time, situates the
livingin avacuum with onefoot inthe realm
of  life and the other on the threshold of
death.A flu death was in many ways  more
pointless, less understandable,  less
preventable, than a war death; the very fact
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that the mass casualties did not fit within
familiarstructures ofwar mourning, thatthey
could inspire a wideeyed grief without any
redeemingvaluetoacceptorreject,suggests
that the pandemic helped fuel familiar
modernist themes such as the frustrated
search for meaning in death, a sense of
alienationand fragmentation,andtheanxiety
over death’s sudden and often random
strikes.[9]
Through literary technique, Voigt assigns
significance to everyday objects; in doing so
shesucceedsincapturingandportraying the
individual human experience. Through the
evocative use of metaphors and
personification,thereaderrealisesthatdeath
is costly. The narrator of this poem
communicates clearly, through repeated
metaphors and personification of the bed,
howmuchistrulylostindeath:
“This is the double bed where she’d been
born,
bedofhermother’smarriageanddecline,
bedhersistersalsoripenedin,
bedthatdrewherhusbandtoherside,
bedofheronechildlostandfivedelivered,
bedindifferenttothemanybodies,
bedaroundwhichallofthemweregathered,
wateryshapesintheshadowsoftheroom,
andthebedfrailabroadtheviolentocean,
thefrightenedbeastssoclumsyandpathetic,
heavingtheirwetbreathagainstherneck,
she threw off the pile of quilts – white face
likeamoon–
andthenenteredstraightawayintoheaven.”
Thesonnetslaunchthereaders straightaway
intothecentreofthepandemic:“everybody's
dying and there's nothing you can do”. This
senseofhelplessnessreflectsthebreakdown
of social order and introduces the notion of
social death. Since time immemorial, social
death succeeded physical death with its
social aspectof death being marked byrites
likefuneralsandwakes.Yet,ifmetaphorically
speaking one is considered dead, or “as
good as dead,” social death precedes
biological death.[15] More subtly, when
others make people with lifethreatening
illness into objects of pity, define their social
existence by their predicted death, and
ignore other biopsychosocial factors, they
create the conditions for social death that
occursbeforebiologicaldeath.
Whileacknowledgingsocialbreakdown,Voigt
strivestoprovideasemblanceofnormalityto
atumultuousandterribletimebyemployinga
formal poetic form: the sonnet. The sonnet
serves as a necessary tool to convey to its
readers the enormity of this human tragedy
andpresentitwithanunderstandablecontext.
[9] Kyrie frames itself with readings of
landscape in terms of former human
presence. Like writing itself, the landscape
retains only the faintest trace of what has
gone before, but Kyrie commemorates the
act of commemoration, and reminds us how
humanemotionhasalreadyreifiedthepast.
Deathhadundonesomany:The
WasteLand
T. S. Eliot famously conjures a threshold
atmosphere in The Waste Land, which is “in
many ways a homage to the state of the
living death, though it mentions neither the
war nor the flu directly”.[9] T.S. Eliot wrote
The Wasteland during a rough time in his
writing career — his marriage was failing,
and both he and his wife had issues of
mental health. The poem is often read as a
representation of the growing
disenchantment of the postwar generation.
Dismissing this view, Eliot commented in
1931, "When I wrote a poem called The
Waste Land, some of the more approving
critics said that I had expressed ‘the
disillusion of a generation’, which is
nonsense. I may have expressed for them
their own illusion of being disillusioned, but
that did not form part of my intention”.[16]
Critics have long considered the poem as a
statement on the post war atmosphere, but
the poem also captures the post pandemic
atmosphere.  The poem is known for its
concealed meaning, particularly its subtle
switchbetween satire andprophecy andhas
become the yardstick of modern literature, a
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poetic counterpart to James Joyce's Ulysses
publishedinthesameyear.[17]
Eliotknewfirsthandwhatevenamildcaseof
the influenza virus could do to the body and
tothe mind. He himself contracted influenza,
and while his experience was not a serious
one, he records that he “is very weak”, and
his wife Vivien notes that afterwards “he is
hauntedbythefactthathismindisnotacting
as it used to do”.[19] Naturally, a range of
personal and political issues feed into the
despairof TheWasteLand, but thesense of
uncertaintycreatedbythemassivefludeaths
isweavedintothefollowinglines.[18,19]:
“UnrealCity,
Underthebrownfogofawinterdawn,
AcrowdflowedoverLondonBridge,somany,
Ihadnotthoughtdeathhadundonesomany.
Sighs,shortandinfrequent,wereexhaled,
Andeachmanfixedhiseyesbeforehisfeet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William
Street,
...
Withadeadsoundonthefinalstrokeofnine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him,
crying“Stetson!
YouwhowerewithmeintheshipsatMylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your
garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this
year?
Orhasthesuddenfrostdisturbeditsbed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to
men,
Orwithhisnailshe’lldigitupagain!.”
Death is both remembered and hidden, both
everywhere, flowing on London Bridge, and
buried – but not securely.[9] Eliot may not
have had the pandemic in mind as he wrote
these lines, but he nevertheless evokes the
atmosphere of the time, one that
encompassed the sense that the dead had
beensoplentifulthattheyhadoverflowedthe
boundariesoftheliving. Indeed, thepassage
suggestsnot only the postwarand the post
pandemicatmosphere,butalsoanewkindof
threatening resurrection. The corpse planted
last year remains buried, but capable of
return, threatening to rise from its bed,
disturbed.[8]Such imagery speaks on botha
literaland figurative level. Corpseshad been
everywhere, often buried in mass graves, or
buriedwithoutamarker,orwithoutacoffin,or
even left unburied; therefore such bodies
could literally return. The corpse as memory
andas body is hidden butremains near,just
outside in the garden, capable of being dug.
[9]Onamorefigurativelevel,wemightseein
a corpse the efforts undertaken during the
pandemictoburythebodypsychologically,to
forget the flu, and to turn away from the
memory of the war. On a broader level, no
one knew in 1922 whether the flu would
return,asvirulentasever,orwhetheranother
war with Germany would unfold. We witness
here a type of modernist mourning: Eliot
recordsthe desireto pushthedead away,to
burygriefandmoveon,andatthesametime
he insists that the memory of these bodies
willalwaysreturn.[9]Theissueofsocialdeath
is also never far from the surface in The
Wasteland, aided and abetted by the same
imagery employed in the above lines. The
lines“Ihadnotthoughtdeathhadundoneso
many / sighs, short and infrequent, were
exhaled/Andeachmanfixedhiseyesbefore
hisfeet”,particularly,reinforcealossofsocial
identity, social connectedness and losses
associated with the defragmented body. The
Wastelandconveysaseriesoflossesandthe
devastationmanifestsitselfinnotbeing–that
is,people.
Eliot creates a sense of lurking, of a hidden
menace,ofdeathwaitingateverycorner,and
this threat is no way lessened by the war’s
end. He effectively captures how London –
never part of the actual war zone – remains
fullofdeathandisfarfromasafehomefront.
As Outka explains, “to see this atmosphere
as primarily fuelled by the war or modern
malaiseistomisstheexperientialtruthofthe
pandemic”.[9] The flu could return without
warning,andthis presentedarealthreat that
producedrational anxiety.Toignorethe fluin
The Waste Land would be to perpetuate the
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subtlewaysthefluwasevadedandsilenced.
Eliot participates in this muted treatment but
“he also captures the shadowed quality of a
traumathatishiddeninplainsight”.[9]
WilliamCarlosWilliams’sSpring
andAll
Williams is a major figure in the pantheon of
American poets. A doctor by profession, he
wasalso aprolific poetand aserious thinker
about poetry and language. The publication
of Spring and All in 1923 marked his
reputation as a major poet. Arguably, the life
of a doctor and the life of a poet influence
eachother as the poetmay make the doctor
amorehumaneandaltruisticministranttothe
sick. In return, the doctor influences the way
a poet views the world. Like Eliot’s The
Wasteland, Spring andAll is saturated in an
atmosphereofmortality.Williams’sfirstpoem,
titledonly by number(later anthologized with
the title “Spring and All”), begins without
warning in a cold and unremarkable
landscape.[20]
The“roadtothecontagioushospital”setsthe
scene – no hope is envisaged in this grim
image of life. The cold wind driven from the
northeastdoesnotbringwithitanidyllicairor
hopeful introduction commonly associated
with the tradition of spring poems. Williams
effectively juxtaposes what he faces every
day at the hospital to the lack of vitality he
witnesses in spring on his way to the
contagioushospital[21].Thedescriptionhere
isfullofimagesofillnessanddeath–“acold
wind”, “dried weeds, standing and fallen”,
“small trees with dead brown leaves”, “under
them leafless wires” [20]. Yet despite this
threshold atmosphere, life still exists and
although the landscape appears a “purplish”
bruise, it succeeds in integrating decay with
the return of life. Williams depicts in Spring
andAll adual climate: theparadoxical sense
of a reawakening towards the end of the
poem “rooted, they grip down and begin to
awaken”[20] – with the pervasivesense that
deathiseverclose,intertwinedwiththeliving.
Like Eliot, Williams records the cost of being
alive.
Discussion
Two intertwined themes cross these three
poems. There is a recurring sense that the
thresholdbetweenlifeanddeathhasbecome
strangely permeable, and cannot easily
distinguishbetweenwhatislivingandwhatis
dead. During the pandemic years, death
came with such little warning that the living
could never feel secure. This sense of a
permeable boundary between the living and
thedeadcouldalsobeexperiencedinternally.
[9] The poems discussed echo the narrative
ofsurvivorsfromboththewarandthefluwho
felt stranded in a state of existence
describable as a “living death”, a state in
which one was not dead, but also not fully
alive.[9] Such an experience could be felt
bothphysically,asanaftereffectofthebodily
hardships of both tragedies, as well as
mentally, as a psychological experience of
emotional numbness. Surrounded by so
many who were dying, the living often felt
onlyhalf alive.Thisdepiction ofbeing onthe
threshold of life and death, and of the
confrontation between life and death,
captures this particular historical moment at
bothliteralandmetaphoricallevels.
The pervasiveness of death in the above
poemsiseverywhere.InTheWasteland,Eliot
depictsthestrangeabsenceandpresenceof
the dead body, one that clearly arises from
both the war and the flu. This strange
borderland between present and absent
bodiesminglestheexperienceofthecivilians
grievingforbodiesabsentandlostinthewar
andthoselostduetotheinfluenza.[9]
Socialdeath pervadesboth Voigt’sKyrieand
Eliot’sTheWasteland. Itis in partrelated to
abandonment, where those afflicted with
disease are often seen as objects of pity,
definedbytheirillness,withtheotheraspects
of their personhood ignored. The notion of
social death takes us back in time when
during medieval times, it was dramatically
played out in the case of patients who were
diagnosed with leprosy. Rotha Mary Clay’s
TheMedievalHospitalsof Englanddescribes
how the leper is taken to church where the
www.rhime.in 205
priestthrowsdustoneachofhisfeet,saying:
“Be thou dead to the world, but alive again
untoGod”.[22]Thisostracismisalsoreflected
in earlier pandemics – significantly the Black
Death. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron”
he writes that the idea of contagion evoked
suchgreatfearthatitcausedpeople“toshun
andfleefromthesickandallthatpertainedto
them” […] “brother forsook brother, uncle
nephew and sister brother and oftentimes
wife husband: [...] fathers and mothers
refused to visit or tend their other children”.
[23] The city was full of corpses “every day
and at every hour that the amount of holy
groundforburialswascertainlyinsufficientfor
the ancient custom of giving each body its
individual place”. No proper burials were
given and “when all the graves were full,
huge trenches were dug in all of the
cemeteriesofthechurchesandintothemthe
new arrivals weredumped by the hundreds”.
[23] More recently, the concept of social
death for the afflicted individual has been
describedinthecontextofHIVAIDS.Initially,
AIDS activism was considered a means to
resist the occurrence of social death and
combatthisthreat.[15]
In an act of compensation to the underlying
threadofsocialdeathinpandemicnarratives,
Elizabeth Outka’s Viral Modernism serves to
portray the flu pandemic of 1918 and its
severity detailing the death toll in rather
gruesome detail.[25] Outka describes this as
“a sensory and affective history of the
pandemic” asserting that these details—the
distinctive description of the symptoms,  the
sight of dead bodies piled up and the sound
of church bells to mourn for the dead
—illuminate “the pandemic’s fragmented
tracesintheliteratureandthe largerculture”.
[24]
To depict the flu, these poets had to record
the gaps as well as the atmosphere that
those gaps produced. Fragmentation and
experimentation characterises literary
modernism: such narratives are imbued with
“mythandmourningandcynicism”.Emphasis
is given to the untold violence which
accompanied World War I and the
innovations which ensued. Conventionally,
World War I is understood as the central
trauma of the modernist era, but the
devastating effects of the pandemic cannot
be forgotten and they “must have been
formativelytraumaticforthelostgenerationof
artists and authors, as well”, Outka insists.
[25] Locating the flu in modernism requires
more than merely adjusting our focus – it
needs a special type of lens to fully
understand the destruction and havoc it
created.[25]                
Whether or not the pandemic is recorded or
addressed,itdidhappen,sweepingtheglobe
with terrible devastation. Much might be
gained by weaving the flu back into the
culturalandemotionalclimateofthepostwar
era, particularly for understanding the sheer
levelofgrief experienced by thepopulace.[9]
By 1919, almost everyone in Britain and
America and across the globe had lost a
friend, child, parent, or spouse on the
battlefields,totheflu,orboth.Deathsin both
tragedies were usually sudden and seemed
to follow no particular logic. This precarious
atmosphere of mortality and the haunting
presenceofrealandimagined corpsesmake
theirwayintoliterature.[9]
Literaturesuccessfully capturesthe elements
ofdiseasethat aredifficultto represent.Our
perceptionoftheworlddependsonahealthy
body and its experiences. Literature can
capture the “invisible, strange conversation
thathappensbetweenthebodyandthemind”.
[26] The three poems succeed in doing
exactly this. They serve as contributors to
modernist conceptions of the drudgery of
everydaylifeduringapandemic.Itisperhaps
uninspiring, then, that rather than offering a
direct account of the flu, these poets –
whetherdeliberatelyor not–evokeaclimate
recording how death, the corpse, and guilt
pervaded the post war, post pandemic
atmosphere. This disappearing act also
reflects the flu’s history, echoing its early
erasure,followedbyitsgradual restorationto
the public record and imagination. Yet,
regardless of their approach, these poems
representa factualdescription ofwhat itwas
www.rhime.in 206
liketo remainalive in1919, reflectingin their
verysilencesboth acknowledgedhorrors and
horrors that remain unspoken. T.S. Eliot and
William Carlos Williams’ have embraced the
flu and the pandemic in different ways;
readers can witness the devastating impact
theflu had onboth these poets.Writing from
a historical context, Ellen Bryant Voigt,
although not directly involved, effectively
portrays what it is like to witness the horrors
ofdeathduringthe1918pandemic.
Works of literature will always convey and
evoke a wide range of emotions. Kyrie, The
Wasteland, and Spring and All manage to
elicit the zeitgeist of the moment, and the
poemsare justas relevantnow,besetas we
arewiththeCOVID19pandemic. 
www.rhime.in 207
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Article
Few illness narratives have been published about the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic. This essay links this silence to representational problems posed by mass trauma that happened before response to the Holocaust began our present era of attention to the narrative testimonies of suffering. In a pandemic, the collective replaces the individual as protagonist, and the health of the public takes precedence over the particular and subjective. History turns to statistics. Beginning with Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, her novella about her experience during the pandemic, and speculating on the entanglement of Virginia Woolf's accounts of influenza with Porter's strategies for recounting her sickness, the essay then examines two 2006 novels—Thomas Mullen's The Last Town on Earth, and Myla Goldberg's Wickett's Remedy—to show how narrative representations of the 1918 flu grapple with recounting the experience of sickness, a struggle repeatedly troped as waking from and remembering a nightmarish sleep. The value of these fictional accounts lies less in their historical accuracy than in the attention they draw to the representational demands that pandemic disease makes as it threatens to overwhelm the narrative medium.
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Here’s what we already know—during the First World War, soldiers and civilians often had remarkably different experiences of the war corpse. Dead bodies were omnipresent on the front line and in the trenches, an inescapable constant for the living soldier. As critic Allyson Booth notes, “Trench soldiers . . . inhabited worlds constructed, literally, of corpses.” In Britain and America, however, such corpses were strangely absent; unlike in previous conflicts, bodies were not returned. This dichotomy underscores some of our central assumptions about the differences between the front line and the home front: in the trenches, dead bodies and the ever-present danger of becoming one; at home, the often haunting absence of bodies to mourn, though this mourning occurred in a place of relative safety. These assumptions miss, however, the sudden erosion of these distinctions in 1918, for in the autumn of that year, dead bodies were suddenly everywhere in Britain, in America, and across the globe; some neighborhoods had streets so full of corpses that no one was left alive to bury them. Death came swiftly and with such little warning that mass graves had to be prepared, and as one witness wrote, “Wood for the coffins ran out.” The influenza pandemic of 1918, which stretched its deathly fingers into 1919, was the most lethal plague in human history, killing somewhere between fifty and one hundred million people worldwide in an astonishingly condensed period. Yet despite inflicting five to ten times more causalities than the First World War, the flu was, for a time at least, seemingly forgotten. British and American literature rarely dwells on it, almost no memorials were built to mark its destruction, and until the last ten years, few historians had told its story; it certainly makes few appearances in modernist studies today. This neglect, however, should not be taken to mean that the pandemic didn’t matter, or didn’t matter to modernism, or even that the flu was actually forgotten. The pandemic was the second great traumatic event of the early twentieth century, and even years later, survivors vividly remembered the experience. Modernist writers and painters themselves suffered from the ravages of the flu: Guillaume Apollinaire died; D. H. Lawrence, H.D., Katherine Anne Porter, and Edvard Munch barely survived; even T. S. Eliot felt his brain was affected by his bout with the illness. Our neglect of the pandemic arises, I argue, not because it was insignificant but because it became the shadowed twin to the war, a disaster as unprecedented in its casualties and in its suffering as the war, yet at times locked into a paradoxical relation with it. Because of the pandemic’s historical position right at the armistice as well as its unusual constellation of symptoms and aftereffects, it alternatively became a suspect rival to the “real” trauma of the Great War and (paradoxically) a loss too great to assimilate. Flu deaths were in part drowned out by war deaths, but also in part subsumed into the vast work of mourning that marks the postwar period and modernism itself. The flu’s shadowed position continues to hide the profound impacts of the pandemic. As scholars of modernism and modernity, however, we should explore the subtle ways the outbreak weaves itself into the fabric of modernism and begin to analyze rather than perpetuate the pervasive postwar evasion of the flu. My investigation of the pandemic intervenes in two ongoing discussions in modernist studies. First, important recent works on modernism and mourning by critics such as Patricia Rae, Tammy Clewell, and others have explored how modernism is often marked by a refusal of traditional modes of consolation; mourning remains unresolved, in part functioning as a political protest against various aspects of the war. Quite naturally, these analyses of mourning are usually focused on war and political turmoil, certainly central sources of grief in the early twentieth century. The pandemic, however, adds a new dimension to the history of modernist mourning. While individuals certainly grieved over those lost to the flu, there were very few public displays of mourning, and there was little in the way of a conceptual framework or shared rituals or ceremonies, such as those that marked the war...
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Theodora R. Graham, Associate Professor of Humanities and English at Pennsylvania State University's Capitol Campus, is the founder and editor of the William Carlos Williams Review. She is currently working on a book, The Wives of the Poets: A Biographic and Literary Study of Five Marriages, concerning Williams, Pound, Frost, Stevens, and Eliot. 1. William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: Random House, 1951), 360. All subsequent quotations are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text as A, followed by the page number. 2. John W. Gerber and Emily M. Wallace, "An Interview with William Carlos Williams," in Interviews with William Carlos Williams, ed. Linda Welshimer Wagner (New York: New Directions, 1976), 18. 3. Joanne Trautmann, "William Carlos Williams and the Poetry of Medicine," Ethics in Science & Medicine 2 (1975): 107. See also James Breslin, "William Carlos Williams: Poet and Physician," The New Physician (July 1971):433-37. 4. William Carlos Williams, The Collected Earlier Poems (New York: New Directions, 1951), 36. Dates noted for a poem or short story indicate first publication. 5. Reed Whittemore, William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), 140-41. 6. Even in 1947, when Williams was elected president of the Medical Board of Passaic General Hospital, he could refer to his practice as "unremunerative." Quoted by Paul Mariani, from an unpublished letter to Charles Abbott, in William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), 539. 7. Walter Sutton, "A Visit with William Carlos Williams," in Interviews, ed. Wagner, 52. 8. William Carlos Williams, Paterson (New York: New Directions, 1963), 114. All subsequent quotations are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text as P, followed by the page number. Williams told Sutton: "They don't understand what the hell I'm driving at, but they accept me"; see Interviews, ed. Wagner, 50. 9. William Carlos Williams, The Collected Later Poems (New York: New Directions, 1950), 23. 10. Chekhov to Alexei Suvorin (11 September 1888), in Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, trans. Michael Henry Heim, ed. Simon Karlinsky (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 107. 11. Williams acknowledged how much his successful balancing act depended on Flossie's intelligence, encouragement, and unflagging support: "The only person to feel sorry for is his wife. She practically becomes a recluse" (A, 359). 12. Williams, The Collected Earlier Poems, 132-34. 13. Cf. Williams' comment in Kora in Hell: "It is nearly pure luck that gets the mind turned inside out in a work of art. There is nothing more difficult than to write a poem." In Imaginations, ed. Webster Schott (New York: New Directions, 1970), 75. All subsequent quotations from Kora in Hell are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text as I, followed by the page number. 14. 15 January 1949; in The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, ed. John C. Thirlwall (New York: McDowell, Oblensky, 1957), 272-73. In his book on Williams' fiction, William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1975), Robert Coles observes: "Williams makes clear in his autobiography the tension he kept feeling between the commentator and the participant, between the physician who attends people, hence is all caught up in the rhythms of their life, and the poet who stands back and tries to condense, make things more pointed and suggestive" (p. 15). 15. William Carlos Williams, January: A Novelette, in Imaginations, 289. All subsequent quotations from A Novelette are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text as I, followed by the page number. Mariani notes that during the earlier influenza epidemic of 1918 Williams claimed to have made as many as sixty house calls in a day (A New World Naked, 157). 16. Losing himself through total attention was a key. "The really curious thing to me is that from complete occupation with either a poem or the delivery of a child, I come away, not fatigued, but rested. That's the secret. . . . I don't admire work for work's sake" (A, 307). 17. William Carlos Williams, The Farmers...
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