Poetry through Past Pandemics

Soar on the wings of time, exploring different takes on pandemics through the universal lens of poetry.


With the progression of time comes the modernization and alteration of language. Though time shows a pattern of an increase in minimalism and decrease of complex dialect, the essence of poetry stays the same. Although language may see changes, poetry unites the times through experience. The following shows various pieces of poetry which individually shine in their literary brightness, but together, weave into a story of struggle, persistence, and growth in times of pestilence.

Yellow Fever - 1793

The United States’ involvement with yellow fever began in Philadelphia 1793. From there, yellow fever swept the entire United States from north to south. The symptoms of yellow fever could be categorized into two: mildly severe and heavily severe. Less severe symptoms of yellow fever include vomiting, back pain, and fever. However, around 15% of the infected experience more severe symptoms including: kidney failure; yellowing in the skin and sclera (eye); and blood excretion from the mouth, eyes, and nose. The most severe result of yellow fever is death, with the American death toll being 100,000.

In Pestilence by Philip Freneau, Freneau highlights the fear experienced during the Philadelphian yellow fever outbreak in the summer of 1793. He emphasizes this widespread fear in the supposed models of society, stating "Priests retreating from their pulpits!" and "Doctors raving and disputing." He writes about the indiscriminate calling of death in stanza three, with a line to highlight being, "Some a-writing, some a-shooting." With the yellow fever having no cure and the fall of a thriving city, American citizens at the time were in panic.

Although over 200 years ago, this parallels the experiences of American citizens today with regards to the coronavirus. Since the 20th century, the United States has been seen as a superpower. Yet the United States was one of the hardest hit in regards to the coronavirus, with millions dead in just one year. Philadelphia, during the 1700s, was seen to be a great city. Even so, it was the place of origin for the American yellow fever epidemic. Philadelphians were in panic, just as Americans present-day. In both scenarios, we find the fall of the mighty into the depths of the unfortunate.

Cholera - 1832-1866

The cholera epidemic consisted of 6 waves; however, within these 6 waves, 80% of people didn’t experience symptoms. The 20% that did, on the other hand, had severe symptoms, including watery diarrhea, vomiting, and even death. The collective death toll of the 6 waves reached the millions. Because cholera existed prior to the coast-to-coast completion of the United States, it followed the path of territorial expansion. For example, prior to the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush during the 1840s, cholera exposure was limited to the Mid-East to Eastern regions of the United States. Nearly two decades later, in 1849, exposure to cholera had spread throughout what we now know as "The Sun Belt" and Northern California.

In A Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, specifically Section 37, he mentions cholera and speaks about his reactions to it. Throughout this section, he carries a central theme of having empathy.

- "Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side."

- "Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last gasp."

Focusing especially on the second point, Whitman steps into the shoes of a cholera patient. He brings a fearful tone into his speech as he writes, "My face is ash-color’d, my sinews gnarl, away from me people retreat." The common reaction to those with cholera is evident in this phrase. Since cholera was highly contagious, fear of contagion was also shared. From this quote, some of the symptoms of cholera are also depicted: breathlessness, bodily deformation, and discoloration.

Figure 1.1 and 1.2: Pyle, G. F. "The Diffusion of cholera in the United States in the Nineteenth Century." Geographical Analysis, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 1969, pp. 59–75., doi:10.1111/j.1538-4632.1969.tb00605.x.

A prevalent cause for the spread of cholera was contaminated water, and although this is no longer relevant to the present-day United States, the reactions towards cholera and the reactions towards coronavirus share commonalities. A trend for the fear of contagion remains constant from the cholera epidemic to the coronavirus pandemic. There is a common motivation of humans to survive--- whether it be to support their families, to fulfill their dreams, or natural instinct. In order to survive, humans will avoid anything that may impede on their chances for survival, including lethal diseases. Although the catalysts of spread have shifted from contaminated water to dense population, the motivation to survive remains the same.

Polio - 1916-1955

During the 1800s, polio was uncommon. However, as the United States became more modern and other diseases started to die out, polio became more prominent. It eventually reached its peak in 1952 , with over 55,000 recorded cases in that year alone. Similar to yellow fever, there are three different categories for polio. The following table is separated into three columns: 1 being not severe, 2 being more severe, and 3 being most severe.

Making History is a poem written by African-American poet, Marilyn Nelson. The poem tells about Nelson’s experiences being one of the first African-Americans to get the polio vaccine. The poem progresses from thinking of her action of getting the vaccine as insignificant, but then she recalls the smaller "firsts" that her mother told her about: "First Negro Telephone Operator, First Negro Opera Singer At The Met…" and more. Then, her tone shifts from dismissive to proud as she remembers the smaller "firsts."

The experience of Nelson parallels the experiences of children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic in more than one way:

1. Nelson grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, comparable to those growing up in the present-day revival of the Civil Rights Movement.

2. Nelson and present-day children and adolescents not only experience growing up during the time of Civil Rights, they also experience growing up during times of adversity associated with pandemics.

3. Both are making history, being the firsts to get the polio vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine, respectively.

Since March 13, 2020, current children and adolescents, specifically in the United States, experienced the fight for Civil Rights, technological advancements in healthcare, and shifts in sociocultural views and beliefs. Though a century after the polio epidemic and Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, many of the elements and experiences of Nelson’s poem are shared with children and adolescents from then and now.

Covid-19 - 2020

Probably the most notorious on this list is the COVID-19 pandemic. The first COVID-19 cases began appearing in late 2019, however cases surged in the year 2020. COVID-19, as opposed to yellow fever (transmitted via mosquitos) and polio and cholera (transmitted through the consumption of contaminated water), is transmitted via airborne droplets. Because the population of the United States and, therefore, population density is much higher than it was in the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s, COVID-19 was able to spread much more easily. It is no surprise that COVID-19, being airborne, is highly contagious; globally, COVID-19 has a death toll of over 3,000,000. Symptoms of COVID-19 range from mild to severe. Mild symptoms include throat infection, shortness of breath, and loss of taste and smell. On the more severe side, symptoms include chest pain, skin discoloration, issues with breathing, and even death.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States found itself in much panic and confusion (including a national toilet paper shortage). But, since then, hope for normalcy started to become more and more plausible. With the public distribution of COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, things started to look upwards.

Even so, even with the chance at normalcy, who could forget the emotions felt at the beginning of the pandemic? The feelings of loneliness, anguish, and restlessness experienced from the beginning of the lockdown are etched onto our hearts like ink on paper. In a poem entitled Quarantine, written by MIT student Patricia D. Gao, the shared feeling of loneliness with company is explored.

As a college student, Gao illustrates the common experience of adolescents --and even older people-- in her piece: loneliness in virtual company. The fear of contagion implied in the first two lines of her poem, “What if I just want to be // In the same room as you?” shows the desperation of immediate “side by side” contact with a loved one. However, that desire is impeded by fear of contagion. Similar to the experiences of those centuries prior, fear of contagion and the desire to survive remain prevalent. Sacrifices continue to be made, and even as the times change, even as language changes, human nature continues to be consistent.


As can be seen with poetry through the ages, aspects in society continue to persist, while others change. Language can change, political and sociocultural views can change, and technology can change. However, the unifying factor is experience. Human nature, sacrifices, and desires are at the core of our being, things that will endure the tides of change. As the times go on, human nature, sacrifices, and desires, will continue to stay, as they are etched not only onto the paper, but also in our collective essence, in our spirit.