bioephemera

Apparently Winston Churchill was not the greatest poet at 15 (but then, who is? Keats churned out some horrible clunkers[1] when young). In this month’s BMJ, Angus Nicholl and colleagues call our attention to Churchill’s classically influenced poem “The Influenza”. (No, it’s not actually called “Ode to Flu” – but it might be cooler if it was).

Nicholl and colleagues give Churchill credit for accurately reflecting the geography and seasonality of the 1890-1 Russian flu pandemic. Churchill’s teachers at Harrow School gave him a prize. I give him a big eye-roll, and that’s generous (“And now Europa groans aloud”?!). If you think I’m being too harsh, I’m sure you’ll let me know.

Full text after the jump.

“The Influenza”
Winston Churchill, 1890

THE INFLUENZA

Oh how shall I its deeds recount
Or measure the untold amount
Of ills that it has done?
From China’s bright celestial land
E’en to Arabia’s thirsty sand
It journeyed with the sun.

O’er miles of bleak Siberia’s plains
Where Russian exiles toil in chains
It moved with noiseless tread;
And as it slowly glided by
There followed it across the sky
The spirits of the dead.

The Ural peaks by it were scaled
And every bar and barrier failed
To turn it from its way;
Slowly and surely on it came,
Heralded by its awful fame,
Increasing day by day.

On Moscow’s fair and famous town
Where fell the first Napoleon’s crown
It made a direful swoop;
The rich, the poor, the high, the low
Alike the various symptoms know,
Alike before it droop.

Nor adverse winds, nor floods of rain
Might stay the thrice-accursed bane;
And with unsparing hand,
Impartial, cruel and severe
It travelled on allied with fear
And smote the fatherland.

Fair Alsace and forlorn Lorraine,
The cause of bitterness and pain
In many a Gaelic breast,
Receive the vile, insatiate scourge,
And from their towns with it emerge
And never stay nor rest.

And now Europa groans aloud,
And ‘neath the heavy thunder-cloud
Hushed is both song and dance;
The germs of illness wend their way
To westward each succeeding day
And enter merry France.

Fair land of Gaul, thy patriots brave
Who fear not death and scorn the grave
Cannot this foe oppose,
Whose loathsome hand and cruel sting,
Whose poisonous breath and blighted wing
Full well thy cities know.

In Calais port the illness stays,
As did the French in former days,
To threaten Freedom’s isle;
But now no Nelson could o’erthrow
This cruel, unconquerable foe,
Nor save us from its guile.

Yet Father Neptune strove right well
To moderate this plague of Hell,
And thwart it in its course;
And though it passed the streak of brine
And penetrated this thin line,
It came with broken force.

For though it ravaged far and wide
Both village, town and countryside,
Its power to kill was o’er;
And with the favouring winds of Spring
(Blest is the time of which I sing)
It left our native shore.

God shield our Empire from the might
Of war or famine, plague or blight
And all the power of Hell,
And keep it ever in the hands
Of those who fought ‘gainst other lands,
Who fought and conquered well.

Notes

[1] “My ear is open like a greedy shark/to catch the tunings of a voice divine.” From “woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain”, Poems, 1817.

[2] Churchill’s Flu Poem. BMJ. 2008;337:a2890

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Isebrand
    December 20, 2008

    Ah, Winnie! He was such a polymath.
    Thanks, Jessica, for coming onboard to http://www.BlogForDarwin.com! 🙂
    I added a link to Bioephemera to the list of Participants (and, by the way, added a link to you on my personal website, http://www.isebrand.com, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while).

  2. #2 mdvlist
    December 21, 2008

    Gosh, I think that Europa line is actually the best one in the poem. It reads pretty elegantly, at least. It’s the forced rhymes that really pain me (as in the first couplet, for example!)– they give me embarrassing flashbacks to my own pre-adolescent poetic labors. And I do mean labors. I wailed away at the English language at least as zealously as Churchill . . . .

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