“To be a poet, I realized, a true poet, was to become the Avatar of humanity incarnate; to accept the mantle of poet is to carry the cross of the Son of Man, to suffer the birth pangs of the Soul-Mother of Humanity.”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
A pandemic by its definition is something novel, something new, for which there is no resistance or immunity. For all of history, disease was simply endemic, the novelty wears off fast. Keats labored under ill health from tuberculosis. Countless other poets, writers, musicians and composers died prematurely from the same. The thing that proved most useful in reducing the impact of TB was a concept called public health. The idea that what was best for an individual was what was best for society. The idea that if we improved the quality of the public works in sanitation, sewage, better housing and clean drinking water for all we could stop or at least reduce the impact of cholera and TB.
There are other pandemics that happen that are more metaphorical in their influence, but just as powerful in impacting human lives. Truly novel new ideas in technology, art, literature, governance, religion, that travel like a virus, carried from one human to the next, until those ideas become ingrained as part of our culture.
Dan Simmons is one of those big intellects, whose writing stretches me, so nuanced are the things that capture his imagination. Simmons has that rare talent who can write a good yarn, filled with complex ideas and not feel the need to hit you over the head, but let you find from it what you will. I have read and reread more than one of Simmons novels. The first time reading it for the excitement of the plot and then a careful rereading to try and understand the more complex connections. I have shared two poems that Simmons used as titles for novels, two of my favorites novels that he has written.
Simmons has written science fiction, horror, detective novels, historical fiction and there is only one thing that connects all of his writing in my perspective – the ability to expand his curiosity around a central idea rooted in literature and then let his creativity take it someplace new. It is not without great thought that the titles and characters of many of his novels come directly from some of the greatest poets and writers of all time. Tacit in his books is an understanding that ideas and literature have a power unto themselves that can move like energy across time and materialize action as real as any imaginary time machine. Literature can bring to life a new reality in our minds.
There is not a cure for COVID-19 to be found in reading Keats or Hopkins or Donne or Shakespeare or Wordsworth. But there is hope to be found in reading the classics, inspiration lays in wait. And in the end, hope is what’s needed during times like this.
(Excerpt from Book 1)
Men’s being mortal, immortal; to shake
Ambition from their memories, and brim
Their measure of content; what merest whim,
Seems all this poor endeavour after fame,
To one, who keeps within his stedfast aim
A love immortal, an immortal too.
Look not so wilder’d; for these things are true,
And never can be born of atomies
That buzz about our slumbers, like brain-flies,
Leaving us fancy-sick. No, no, I’m sure,
My restless spirit never could endure
To brood so long upon one luxury,
Unless it did, though fearfully, espy
A hope beyond the shadow of a dream.