As I stayed-in one evening,
Not walking down any street,
Tapping away at my laptop
My horizons newly petite.
In at my always-in earbuds
I heard a lover sing
Over the thrum of guitar chords:
has no ending.
“I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till the plague is finally beat;
And the river jumps over the mountain
And people go masked in the street;
“I'll love you till the ocean
Is emptied of plastic, and clean;
And scientists, winged, go squawking
That they’ve made a real vaccine.
“We’ll run through fields like rabbits,
For in our blood we will hold
The Flower of Antibodies,
To take us back into the world.”
But all the Covids in the city
From -1 running up to -19
Said: “let not songs deceive you.
You shall not unquarantine.
“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where all is contagiousness,
We watch you from the shadow
And cough when you would kiss.
“In headaches and in worry
Your life would shudder away,
For contact promotes infection
To-morrow just as to-day.
“Into the lung’s pink valley
Rolls the cytokine storm;
And through the threaded bloodstream
The hordes of virus swarm.
“O plunge your hands in water,
And scrub them in soap as long
As it takes you to sing, sing twice
All the Happy Birthday Song.
“The schools reopen this summer,
The crowds pack Beachy Head,
Though the touch of a hand-shake opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
“O look, look in the mirror?
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
“O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and say:
I can still love my neighbour, just
In a socially-distanced way.”
It was late, late in the evening,
The song was over and done;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the lockdown carried on.
[Note: I originally jotted this into a series of tweets on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, but I find myself moved to extract it from the welter of that platform to bung it here. I'm not sure why, unless it's a sense that my nation, which today moved more-or-less comprehensively out of lockdown despite tens of thousands of new weekly Coronavirus cases and thousands of continuing deaths, is undertaking something reckless and foolish. My concern is, I cannot deny, personal as well as general. I'll be 55 this month, and have suffered lifelong from an asthma that renders me, so far as I can gauge it, at rather higher risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19 than many others. So I do not share the heady sense of invulnerability many younger people (wrongly, I think) seem to think justifies a collective rush back to shops and beaches bars and nightclubs. Auden's great poem catches something of my mood, perhaps.
There he is, at the head of this post. Apparently Auden's face looked that way not merely because of a lifetime's smoking and sunshine, but because he suffered from ‘Touraine‐Solente‐Golé syndrome’, also known as ‘Behçet's disease’: an autosomal recessive form of pachydermoperiostosis. This was news to me, I must say. ‘The main features,’ according to Jeffrey K Aronson, ‘apart from the skin changes, are digital clubbing, subperiosteal bone formation, and arthropathy; other features include anaemia, blepharitis, hyperhidrosis, and congenital cardiac defects. There is an excellent description in Rook's Textbook of Dermatology, at times poetic: “The pattern of folds and furrows on the forehead and cheeks, and the heavy thickened eye-lids, stamp the patients with a uniform expression of weariness and despair”.’ Blimey!
I've never quite known what to make of the celebrated David Hockney remark: ‘I kept thinking, if his face looks like this, what must his balls look like?’ I suppose Hockney means: if that's his face his balls must be extraordinarily wrinkled; but the bon mot has always taken me the other way, to the notion that Auden's balls had struck some kind of Faustian pact, along the lines of Dorian Gray's picture in the attic:—that as Auden's face collapsed into that amazing tangle of runnels and crevasses his balls became purer, smoother and rounder until, on his deathbed, they were two billiard balls of unblemished perfection.