Ovid in the Time of Covid: Chaos

As we begin 2021, I thought of sharing a new monthly piece in place of Owl About Words, in which I shared Ivor Brown’s views of various English words, their origins, usage, etc. from his book, Just Another Word.

As TS Eliot wrote in Four Quartets:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And the next year’s words await another voice.

To make an end is to make a beginning.”

We might have entered a new year, with the hope that all the vaccines produced at rapid speed will be able to protect the world from Covid-19. However, since Covid has lingered so long, it is likely to leave some lasting changes in the way we live and work.

When speaking of changes, how can we not think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that is so full of legends and parables from Greek and Roman mythology. They attempt to capture fantastical transformations of characters, in response to certain circumstances and often with a moral for us lesser mortals.

Inspired by the Metamorphoses, my idea is to write about changes that we are witnessing against the setting of a pandemic. I have decided to title it Ovid in the Time of Covid. Because, although we are in a new year, some of the effects of the pandemic are likely to be with us for longer than we think.

The first of these is titled Chaos, for what else can we call the havoc that the Covid pandemic has wreaked upon us.


Time it was, when ill winds blew

Through the city of Wuhan in eastern China;

Another of the factory-to-the-world cities few

Would have given a second thought to.

How came it then, that people there were so afflicted

With an illness that was said to be respiratory?

In a matter of days, millions were infected

Until they imposed a lockdown that was mandatory.

At first, all anyone knew was that it was a new virus,

But where it came from, none could say.

They said it was like SARS and MERS and yet it was different

As it rampaged through city and province, day after day.

They said it all began in an animal food market

Where creatures of all kind are each day slayed

To be delighted in, as a feast upon the table;

Now in home after home, people for deliverance prayed.

Chaos ’twas called ; a rude unfeatured mass,

A mere vast weight inert, discordant seeds

Of ill-matched things in one huge heap compressed.

– Chaos, Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book I, lines 9-11

Rumours spread like wildfire while we waited for the facts,

And the virus carried upon the wind, here and everywhere,

Wreaking Chaos in its path from China across the world;

They said it would go away with the warmth of the summer air

Stay away from each other they said, do not step out;

Speak not too loud, if you must speak at all.

The virus was on everyone’s lips and not always for the right reasons;

Who could tell when, where, or who would be next to fall?

Meanwhile cities began to look like ghost towns,

Emptied of life, day as deserted as night.

But if you gazed upward at the sky and saw the shade of blue,

O ne’er did the world see such a beautiful sight.

They said dolphins returned to the lagoons in Venice

And the birds sang louder across the world;

Why then, did the air around the virus get murkier,

And why did the rumours still swirl?

People complained they couldn’t breathe or even smell,

Scientists said that humans caught the virus from a bat;

The symptoms were experienced but the fact still is

It’s our asymptomatic lifestyles, and what we do about that.

Those who could, worked and met on Zoom,

For millions of others, it seemed the death-knell;

Work from home became reality not just a trending hashtag

The world had never seen a worse kind of living hell.

Chaos has visited before as we know only too well;

Wars, plague and influenza, these we have already seen.

Wreaking havoc in land after land, laying everyone low

She goes by many names, this time she is Covid-19.

Like the ones that came before she has us in her vice-like clutch,

We should never forget why the pandemic began;

Blaming each other and foreign lands don’t do much,

Chaos is here because of the excesses of man.

The waves in search of foreign climes ; and men,

Save their own shores, no other region knew.

– Chaos, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I, lines 118-19

Covid-19 on the other hand has crossed the seven seas;

The virus no border knows, it doesn’t discriminate.

Though the rich living in Elysian fields continue to lament

The loss of freedom, and the restrictions they love to hate.

The poor have no luxury of such thought for they are the chosen ones;

With no work and nowhere to hide or go

And with no room in hospitals and care homes either,

Covid-19 simply seeks them out and deals her deathly blows.

We know not how this will end nor when

Suffice it to say that our lives we must amend

Then and now, now as then.

The featured image at the start of this post is a painting depicting Chaos by George Frederic Watts (circa 1875), courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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