Ovid in the Time of Covid: Staying Away

The second of my Ovid in the Time of Covid pieces, this one is called Staying Away and is inspired by the story of Actaeon in The Metamorphoses that some of you might be familiar with.

Actaeon, while on a hunting trip with his friends, takes a break and goes to a stream near a cave where Diana is bathing with her friends and attendants. On seeing Actaeon approach, she puts a curse on him, whereupon, he transforms into a stag. He is then chased and killed by his own hunting hounds.

Staying Away

At first in the city of Wuhan, people stayed indoors

Not knowing why or wherefore, this deadly virus came

All they heard, all the time, was stay away, stay apart

If you want to keep out of this virus’ deadly game.

Soon people stopped meeting and greeting each other

It was as if to do so would be a curse

Don’t speak, don’t touch, stay away was the mantra

Anything else would only make it worse.

But nothing could stop Covid-19 from rampaging on

It was in the air, in your breath, and it hung there for hours

If you spoke too close, or too loudly, your words uttered it

Without your ever meaning to send forth droplets and showers

People simply caught it, and many never showed a sign

Despite all the rules of social distancing

It was indiscriminate, cruel, and unforgiving

In fact, it was all the while, physical distancing.

“Enough, O comrades, for to-day of spoil

Hath Fortune given: with blood of slaughtered beasts

Our nets and weapons reek. To-morrow morn

Aurora from her saffron car shall see

The chase renewed.”

Actaeon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Lines 172-176

People took to the internet, and over the cyber-waves

Met, conversed and chatted about Covid-19;

How it had changed their lives, yet how little it mattered

Consoling themselves, perhaps believing this was always destined.

Lockdowns suddenly meant more time on one’s hands

But with every hour, work expanded to fill all that space

Work from home became a trending hashtag,

While the search for a vaccine, a global race.

Back at offices, desks were set even farther apart

And fist or elbow bumps replaced the handshake

A smile or a nod was alright, from two metres away

We’re back together, people thought, what difference does it make?

But a difference was felt and experienced all the while

To look someone in the eye, but speak through a mask

‘Twas hard to tell a smirk from a smile,

O’, never for this did the world ask.

“Her beauties sidelong turned, with wrathful look

Askance upon the intruder. Oh! for one

Of all her arrows now! The neighbouring stream

Supplied the want. With vengeful hand she dashed

Against his manly cheek and o’er his brow

The gathered drops, and terrible his doom

Foreboding—” Go! ” she cried, ” and, if thy tongue “

Can shape the tale, tell how thou sawest once

A Goddess naked! “

Actaeon and Diana in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Lines 217-225

Across the world, there were no places to meet

Restaurants and bars were closed for months

Some shuttered forever, along with theatres

And people wondered if they could step out, just this once.

Shut inside their homes, they searched the internet desultorily

To be sure, there were concerts, ballets and plays streaming

Some exulted while others complained and groaned

If this is what is meant to give our lives more meaning.

People who worked in certain businesses were dismayed

Their lives teetering on the edge of when

The lockdown will end, or the vaccine be found

And whether they will still have their jobs then

For their work depended on people being able to meet

Person-to-person and face-to-face

Covid-19 had cast such a spell, a curse,

There seemed little chance of reviving social grace.

The Death of Actaeon by Titian; Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Poor fugitive!

He flies the very followers whom his cheer

Was wont to urge, along the very tracks

Himself so oft pursuing trod! And ” Hold! “

He would have cried—” Actaeon I! your Lord! “

Do ye not know me? “—But the words refused

His will. The baying of the eager hounds

Rang deafening.”

Actaeon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Lines 269-276

Through the raging pandemic, there were some

Who paid no heed to all the warnings out there.

‘Twas beneath their dignity to wear masks or stay away

Do we know any, that acted like they didn’t care?

When this is all over and the pandemic ends

When vaccines are here, and the pall of gloom is lifted

We know not how many will remain our friends

But we hope that many with better sense will be gifted.

The featured image at the start of this post is a painting titled Diana and Actaeon by Titian from Wikimedia Commons

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