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.
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.
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
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