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Featured Poem: A Wasted Illness by Thomas Hardy

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 13th December 2010

Winter has well and truly arrived once more, and along with it comes certain inevitabilities. The bitterly cold temperatures (the mercury seems to plummet to new lower depths each year); the incredibly busy town centres; the country grinding to a halt and being gripped in a strange sort of bewildered limbo upon the occurrence of snow. Above it all there’s the annual bout of illness to deal with. If you’re very lucky you may be able to escape unscathed but even if you arm yourself full to the brim with vitamin supplements, herbal remedies and anti-bacterial cleansing gels as an artillery of defence, with hundreds of different common colds and a few strains of flu hanging about in the air it’s hard not to get at least one chink in the armour. I myself have succumbed over the last couple of weeks, combating aches, pains, and a throat like stinging nettles; surrounded by piles of tissues as I sniffle and cough my way through each day.

The time spent recuperating and renewing your energy when under the proverbial weather is a tricky one. If you have the luxury of being able to lie around feeling sorry for yourself and don’t bravely soldier on, sickness and all (in other words: yes I am something of a wimp) then the hours can seem to drag slowly and miserably by, especially in the wee hours when sinuses seem to go into overdrive and sleep is highly elusive. Yet when daylight comes, time ticks along at a much speedier pace; indeed, the days can melt into one long, stuffed-up and spluttering blur. Everything you may have been planning or meaning to do, even very small and insignificant things, falls entirely by the wayside whilst you’re in a bubble of bed-rest. I’m not entirely comfortable with that feeling, especially at this time of year when my to-do list is even longer than usual; I end up with more than a hint of guilt and frustration towards the failings of my own immune system and its carelessness in not observing my busy schedule. But in some respects, a bit of non-serious illness can be a blessing in disguise; the not-quite shining silver lining to a grey cloud. Being forced to lay low for a little while has a few benefits; not least that you can get to catch up on a lot of reading. But also, to be slightly philosophical, it gives the chance for reflection, appreciation for your usual level of premium fitness and even a spot of inspiration - if you’re anything like Virginia Woolf, who said that “a slight attack of influenza” could allow the “wastes and deserts of the soul” to be revealed…though I’m not too sure if a relatively small case of the sniffles will spur me on to write a literary blockbuster, at least not just yet.

So perhaps my particular ailment has not been completely ‘wasted’, as the title of this week’s featured poem infers. However I still think it’s rather appropriate, if only for Hardy’s incredibly dramatic use of language; nobody suffering with the worst case of man (or woman) flu could come up with words to rival the torturous descriptions in the opening stanzas. I strongly suspect that the illness Hardy is referring to something altogether serious, perhaps mental rather than physical. Nonetheless, it’s always good to have a bit of Hardy to get you through when you’re feeling less than a hundred per cent.

A Wasted Illness

Through vaults of pain,
Enribbed and wrought with groins of ghastliness,
I passed, and garish spectres moved my brain
To dire distress.

And hammerings,
And quakes, and shoots, and stifling hotness, blent
With webby waxing things and waning things
As on I went.

"Where lies the end
To this foul way?" I asked with weakening breath.
Thereon ahead I saw a door extend -
The door to death.

It loomed more clear:
"At last!" I cried. "The all-delivering door!"
And then, I knew not how, it grew less near
Than theretofore.

And back slid I
Along the galleries by which I came,
And tediously the day returned, and sky,
And life--the same.

And all was well:
Old circumstance resumed its former show,
And on my head the dews of comfort fell
As ere my woe.

I roam anew,
Scarce conscious of my late distress … And yet
Those backward steps through pain I cannot view
Without regret.

For that dire train
Of waxing shapes and waning, passed before,
And those grim aisles, must be traversed again
To reach that door.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

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