How prescient that Dr Shafquat Towheed and Dr Edmund King had chosen ‘Reading and Wellbeing’ as the subject of their HOBAR seminar series this season.  Key workers have been performing duties which have rarely been as valued, placing themselves at risk by working in hospitals, supermarkets, collecting bins, and delivering parcels.  Others have sat within four walls for 23 hours a day struggling with connectivity, juggling work-outs with Joe Wicks, home-schooling, cooking, cleaning, the demands of not-office life, and feeling anxious.  Books and television offer the only escape to a different realm.  As Ella Berthoud has already noted, in the early days of this crisis, back in March, many prepared to tackle those retirement and summer holiday tomes of good intention… and as is characteristic of good intentions, have often failed, resorting to comfort reads instead. 

With characteristic sang froid, BBC Radio 4’s Today rose to meet disruption to daily life by airing the favourite poems of its journalists and presenters.  Many of these familiar and less familiar verses recited by voices known for delivering news of financial meltdown or football results took on new resonance.  Meanwhile, the The Guardian notes how people in Ireland are turning to poetry for solace at this time, the Los Angeles Times observes that poetry is not just easier but also better for you than baking (who knew!), and the BBC notes that people are connecting online to enjoy poetry parties:  ‘Beth Calverley, from Bristol, created The Poetry Machine in 2015 to help people “put their feelings into words”.’  Perhaps poetry can save the sanity of the nation!

By chance, I had hastily arranged a poetry project of my own designed to keep in touch with an older friend I would no longer be able to meet up with for a daily morning swim as our local gym closed its doors indefinitely.  We would read a poem a day instead from Francis Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury of English Verse, assembled in 1861 to ‘include in it all the best original Lyrical pieces and Songs in our language, by writers not living’, re-printed in gold-tooled, cloth binding in 2018 to mark the 175th anniversary of Macmillan. She had been awarded the book many years before as a school prize like many other English school children and had enjoyed dipping into it – but had not untaken to start at T. Nashe and continue until reaching P.B. Shelley two hundred and eighty-eight poems later (or should that be CCLXXXVIII poems later?).  This would present us with a stimulating task to give structure to the day and chip into the isolation of lockdown.  To be brutally honest, it would give us each an excuse to check that the other was still alive.  What has emerged from this plan has been extraordinary.  These postcards from long-dead writers are our calendar: as I write we are in Book Two,  LXIV On the Late Massacre in Piedmont, J. Milton, the Floréal of our newly-configured year.  We have progressed through Shakespearean sonnets, more poems from Drummond than expected, and work by Sidney, Bacon, and Marlowe.  The anthology opens with Thomas Nashe’s Spring and its onomatopoeic shout of joy:

Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo
Spring! the sweet Spring!

The themes of Spring and Love continue with sonnets and madrigals drawing us into our journey through poetry and reflecting the glorious weather, the fresh green shoots, and the birdsong of late March so audible as trains, cars and planes are silenced.  The focus dimmed to thoughts of death as the mortality spike in the daily briefings from politicians began to rise in early April, and soon we were facing the futility of show, ambition, and pomp as lost opportunities and broken appointments started to bite:

The World’s a bubble, and the Life of Man
          Less than a span:
In his conception wretched, from the womb
          So to the tomb;
Curst from his cradle, and brought up to years
          With cares and fears.

Poetry was not just marking the passing of time but seemed to foreshadow swiftly changing moods and thoughts.  Palgrave was charting our Locked-down lives as we had not imagined. 

As the Today editors recognised in the decision to bring familiar words of comfort, guidance or solace to millions each morning,  poetry compresses ideas and emotions, is remarkably fluid and flexible and echoes the beat of our hearts.  Whilst the rhythm of Palgrave’s shifting themes might have proved to be remarkably adept at forecasting our mental doomscape, we have learnt that many of these works provide means of gauging and revealing the temperature of our readings and moods.  The hanging thought or nuanced image triggers feeling and reminiscence making this poetry project a powerful way to develop conversation, deepen a friendship and get to know someone else, or indeed, oneself.  It is perhaps no surprise that inpatients were encouraged to read as a means of engendering feelings of kindness and gratitude according to Laura Blair in her paper ‘”Useful” or “Objectionable?” Reading as a Treatment in the Nineteenth-century Asylum’ or, indeed, that Thomas Bakewell (1761- 1835) ‘uses verse to popularize and debate psychological issues and . . . even uses poetry to carry out psychological experiments on himself’ as Michelle Faubert observes in Rhyming Reason: The Poetry of Romantic-Era Psychologists.

This experience has also brought me closer to the subject of my own research, James Lackington, the eighteenth-century autodidact and bookseller.  He introduces an abnormally large number of references to fragments of verse, rhyme, and doggerel in his autobiographies, clothing himself in patches of learning.  The first edition of his Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington (1791) includes around 150 quotations in its 344 pages whilst the fourth edition (1794) boasts a further 250-odd additions leading to one reviewer complaining that ‘the fearful quotations are certainly  “a weariness and vexation of spirit”’ (ironically including a quotation in the process).  He is perhaps the eighteenth-century equivalent of ‘bookcase credibility’, fully aware of the cultural capital poetry affords and overdoing it with aplomb.  Edward Young’s Night Thoughts is the totemic text which comforted Lackington in sickness and old age and inspired him as a young man.  As Enlightenment England clasped the graveyard poets to its breast, as a memento mori or a literary charm against disease, so many of us today are turning to poetry to bring snippets of wisdom to fend off despair (so much easier to read than those tomes of good intentions) and to explore the layers of confused thoughts and feelings which Coronavirus has brought to our previously hurried, purposeful lives. And I have fallen back in love with poetry after ignoring its appeal, distracted by being so very busy.

Dr Sophie Bankes completed a PhD with the Open University, James Lackington (1746-1815) and Reading in the Late Eighteenth Century and has been teaching with The Brilliant Club across London and South East England. She is working on a grammar project with teacher, Olivea Ohonmele.