“Published this poem in today’s Guardian. Apologies for any undue haste but felt the need to respond. Starts in Eyam in 1666 with the plague, ends more hopefully with a Cloud Messenger drifting towards the Himalayas, courtesy of the old Sanskrit poem The Meghaduta. I was trying to say something about contact and connection with loved ones when we’re separated and confined. I’m donating any fee to Ripples of Hope, a festival of human rights planned for Manchester next Feb, of which poetry will play a big part. Something to aim for, on the distant horizon.” Simon Armitage
[Armitage’s Instagram page]
And I couldn’t escape the waking dream
of infected fleas
in the warp and weft of soggy cloth
by the tailor’s hearth
in ye olde Eyam.
Then couldn’t un-see
the Boundary Stone,
that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes,
thimbles brimming with vinegar wine
purging the plagued coins.
Which brought to mind the sorry story
of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre,
star-crossed lovers on either side
of the quarantine line
whose wordless courtship spanned the river
till she came no longer.
But slept again,
and dreamt this time
of the exiled yaksha sending word
to his lost wife on a passing cloud,
a cloud that followed an earthly map
of camel trails and cattle tracks,
streams like necklaces,
fan-tailed peacocks, painted elephants,
of meadows and hedges,
bamboo forests and snow-hatted peaks,
the hieroglyphs of wide-winged cranes
and the glistening lotus flower after rain,
hypnotically see-through, rare,
the journey a ponderous one at times, long and slow
but necessarily so.
On Simon Armitage’s website, you can find the nine poems he’s written in his first year as Britain’s poet laureate. Eight come with a footnote explaining what inspired them: the opening of a concert hall, say, or the launch of a polar research ship. But his most recent poem doesn’t need a footnote. The title does the job: “Lockdown”.
For the first time since taking up the post last May, the 56-year-old “felt a personal responsibility” to respond to current events with a poem, he tells me over the phone. “I’ve not really felt that obligation before… [but] this affects everybody globally. It’s very oppressive. It feels unique.”
[Tristram Fane Saunders, in The Telegraph, 14 May 2020]
“Lockdown” moves from the outbreak of bubonic plague in Eyam, Derbyshire in the 17th century – when a bale of cloth sent from London inadvertently brought fleas carrying the plague – to the poem Meghadūta by the Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa, which follows the legend in which an exile sends words of reassurance to his wife in the Himalayas via a passing cloud.
Actress Florence Pugh has lent her voice to Simon Armitage’s poem set to music in aid of domestic violence charity “Refuge”.
The star, who was recently nominated for an Oscar for her turn as Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, joins band LYR, made up of Poet Laureate Armitage, Richard Walters and Patrick J Pearson, for a recording of his recent poem Lockdown.
Recorded remotely at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, it is the first time Pugh has contributed both spoken word and vocals to a song.