‘… So for example, the Yeats poem “The Second Coming” [that’s the one that starts: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer”]. That’s a canonical poem. He wrote it in 1919, and it has been read, quite rightly, as sort of a poem that captures the terrible aftermath of world war, and all the revolutions that were going on at the time, the political violence in Ireland, the Black-and-Tans … all this violence.’
‘But in the weeks preceding his writing of the poem, his wife, George, who was pregnant, caught the virus and was very close to death. The highest death rates of the 1918–19 pandemic were among pregnant women—in some areas, it was an up to 70 percent death rate for these women. Just really terrible. He was watching this happen, and while his wife was convalescing, he sits down and writes “The Second Coming.”’
Elizabeth Outka, who will be joining us to discuss To The Lighthouse next week, is also the author of Viral Modernism – The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. In this interview for Slate, Elizabeth discusses the subtle and enduring presence of the disease in modernist writing and culture.