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3:AM in Lockdown 30: Jude Cook

Lovely April
By Jude Cook.

When a full UK lockdown was finally announced by our lying, incompetent government on Monday 23rd March, a number of writers commented, hey, it’s not so bad after all, Shakespeare wrote King Lear under similar conditions in 1606. A day later, many of those same writers — mainly those with children — were wondering how they’d failed to write even a simple home-delivery shopping list between awaking at 6am for day-long fiasco of chaotic home schooling, fervid anxiety about money and vulnerable loved ones, and an evening of epic drinking. After a week, the thought of using lockdown for anything creative such as writing was not only practically impossible, but conscionably obscene, with over forty people dying an hour, and frontline NHS staff without adequate PPE or testing. The future, like everything else, had been abruptly cancelled. The present is all we have.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, 1606 wasn’t the first time the London theatres were closed due to plague. At the beginning of his career, in 1592, he was forced to flee London to Titchfield, the country seat of the Countess of Southampton and mother to the Earl of Southampton, ‘the lovely youth’ of the sonnets. There he was commissioned to write a long poem, a work which became Venus and Adonis. One theory is that he’d already been to Titchfield two years previously, hired by Lord Cecil to write a series of sonnets encouraging the young Earl — who went by the nickname ‘Rosely’ — to marry Cecil’s niece. These sonnets — nineteen of them, one for each year of the Earl’s life — centred around the importance of propagation. The greatest sin, the poems urged, was for Rosely to die without issue, and be forgotten by posterity and future generations: ‘But if thou live remembered not to be / Die single, and thine image dies with thee’. It’s easy to imagine the writing of these poems marked the moment Shakespeare fell in love with the Earl. By the penultimate sonnet, he’s digressed from the task in hand to wondering how he can ever write the beauty of the youth’s eyes, and comparing him to a summer’s day.

One of the few moments of mental calm during lockdown has been provided Patrick Stewart’s reading of a sonnet a day. The daily sight of his huge, grinning, magnanimous face delivering the immortal lines of the first nineteen sonnets has been a rare pleasure. The poems’ themes of vanishing youth, of mortality, of the cycle of life, of ‘lovely April’s’ quick effacement by ‘devouring time’, seem to speak to our moment. Life — and the lives of those in critical care — seems to be held in the balance. This is a pivotal, fulcrum moment for them — for society, too. Will we strive to make the world a fairer place in the future, once that future finally arrives? Perhaps the livelihoods of all key workers, from healthcare staff to delivery drivers, will be held in greater esteem once this is over. Maybe just clapping and banging pots and pans from our doorstep won’t be enough. Those who voted in the present government should never forget they owe their lives to these workers, and vote accordingly at the next opportunity, or face the consequences should a similar plague ever visit us again. ‘For never-resting Time leads summer on / To hideous winter and confounds him there, / Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone, / Beauty o’ersnowed and bareness everywhere’.


First posted: Saturday, April 11th, 2020.

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