Sunday, 24 May 2020

Cholera, Corona, New Beginnings

In his account of Morris and Burne-Jones at Oxford University, J.W. Mackail notes that in October 1854 ‘Term had been postponed for a week because of the cholera epidemic’.  I had already pointed this fact out to my own students when they were unable to return to campus at the beginning of this term; ‘The British academic system has been here before’, I noted in an online message to them.

What I hadn’t then recalled is just how much Mackail makes of that cholera epidemic a few pages earlier, how much symbolic, even proto-political force he imbues it with.  For he writes that, to young men of the time, ‘The terrible cholera autumn of 1854 seemed the climax of a period of physical and moral stagnation from which the world was awakening to something like a new birth’.  To back up this claim he quotes a sizeable stretch from Morris’s early short story ‘A Dream’, which I give here in truncated form: ‘Till late that night I ministered to the sick in that hospital; but when I went away, I walked down to the sea … I walked there pondering till a noise from over the sea made me turn and look that way; what was that coming over the sea?  Laus Deo!  The WEST WIND:  Hurrah! … I saw the great green waves rising, nodding and breaking, all coming on together; and over them from wave to wave leaped the joyous WEST WIND; and the mist and the plague clouds were sweeping back eastward in wild swirls’. 

Shelleyan promises of personal and perhaps cultural renewal, then, from the ‘pest-laden city’ the story evokes; and Mackail claims that such significances are a 'hardly concealed second meaning’ on its author’s part.  May the terrible Covid-19 Spring of 2020 prove such a symbolic turning point too, so that we ourselves awaken to a political new birth from the physical and moral stagnation of the Tory austerity of the last decade.