By Nichole DeWall, Professor of English, McKendree University
When I casually mentioned during my Fall 2020 undergraduate Shakespeare course that I’d written a dissertation on early modern plague writing, my students asked me to share an archival text. My selection? A little-known plague poem, The Triumph of DEATH, by Anglo-Welsh writer and Oxford University calligraphy teacher, John Davies of Hereford (1564?-1618). Our work with Davies’ text supported two of my pedagogical goals during that pandemic semester of synchronous online learning:
- To use the best practices of trauma-informed pedagogy in my classes.
- To remind students that the humanities can help them frame their own lived experiences in meaningful ways.
The Triumph of DEATH: OR, The Picture of the Plague: According to the Life, as it was in Anno Domini. 1603., available for free through Early English Books Online’s Text Creation Partnership, is an 856-line verse poem composed of rhyming quatrains (a / b / a / b). The poem is told from 1609 about the devastating 1603 outbreak that killed more than 25,000 Londoners (Slack 151). To organize our progress through the poem, I divided Triumph of DEATH into six parts: invocation of the muse (lines 1-48); plague-time picture of London (lines 49-176); God’s judgement (lines 177-296); bodies and burials (lines 297-396); reformation of sins (lines 397-504); and repentance (lines 504-856). The original manuscript has page rather than line numbers, so I exported the poem into a Word document and inserted line numbers myself before distributing the text via our learning management system.
In the Before Times, I may not have welcomed the spontaneous addition of an archival text based on student interest; my ongoing reaching and research, however, had convinced me to adopt a trauma-informed approach more intentionally than in the past. I had spent the summer studying SAMHSA’s guidelines, reading literature on the subject, and watching the many video tutorials on trauma-informed teaching that had proliferated during the early days of the pandemic. A COVID-themed writing assignment that students had completed toward the beginning of the semester revealed that many felt a lack of agency amid so many bewildering unknowns. More than ever, it seemed, students needed what bell hooks describes in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope as “a conscious, cooperative partnership that is rooted in mutuality, what is referred to in trauma-informed teaching as “voice and choice” (63). I had read articles about the value of integrating the pandemic into our curriculums, and a quick revision of our course schedule allowed us two 80-minute class sessions to read and discuss The Triumph of DEATH before returning to Shakespeare’s plays.
I prepared twenty open-ended, short-answer questions to guide students’ reading and asked them each to complete ten. Half of the questions connected Davies’ poem to the broader historical, political, and cultural movements that we had been investigating in class; the other ten asked students to relate specific moments in The Triumph of DEATH to their own pandemic experiences. I made it very clear to my students that they were under no obligation to disclose anything personal and empowered them to “guide their own information-sharing and disclosure” (Venet 3). I also gave them the choice to opt out of the assignment entirely.
What happened next was remarkable: each of my students chose to answer the more personal questions, and they came to class eager to discuss their responses. I attribute their openness to various factors:
- I knew many of these students from previous classes, so there was already a level of comfort between us.
- The class was small—only twelve learners—and many of them knew each other from pre-pandemic classes.
- In line with trauma-informed practice, we had already been discussing our pandemic experiences throughout the semester in an effort to build community and trust.
More generally, I also encouraged students to avoid a posture of silent reverence toward early modern texts, what I often call a museum mentality. I reminded students that if early modern literature is to be useful to us, then we need to use it: grapple with it, speak back it, and imagine our lives in conversation with it. As we made our way through The Triumph of Death, I urged students to remember that—at the most fundamental level—Davies’ poem was asking the same pandemic questions that we were: How can we find our bearings in the midst of such uncertainty? How do we maintain human connection when every person is a potential carrier? Will we ever go back to “normal”?
Two of Davies’ themes immediately resonated with my students: the ineffability and disruption of the pandemic experience. Despite invoking a muse early in the poem, Davies’ speaker struggles “T’expresse this Plagues vnvtterable Storme” (221). My students, too, struggled to speak the unspeakable. During discussion, one student shared that his beloved aunt had died alone of COVID-19, gasping for air; another student, a native New Yorker, recounted the terror of seeing refrigerated morgue trucks stationed across the street: “There are no words,” she said.
Davies also relates how the bubonic plague disrupted students’ university educations: “our forlorne Vniuersities / Forsaken were and Colledges made fast” (222). As with the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures were viewed as necessary to stop the bubonic plague’s spread. Biographical registers from Oxford University, for example, indicate that both professors and students had detailed “escape plans” that identified specific countryside manors to which they could flee and continue their educations (Courtenay 703). My students had missed graduation ceremonies and college orientations; many student-athletes’ seasons had been cut short when universities pivoted to online learning in the spring of 2020. Although my university had resumed in-person classes for the Fall 2020 semester, COVID-19 social distancing protocols had hampered the non-academic aspects of the college experience: shared meals, late-night study groups, and casual hallway conversations with professors. Reading Davies’ account of shuttered universities made one of my students feel “less alone, like this had happened to students before” she said.
Some students resented the media’s coverage of bar-hopping college students who defied social distancing guidelines in the lead-up to the fall 2020 semester. “My friends and I are doing everything right,” one student wrote, “but we’re being painted with the same brush as the partiers.” Davies’ poem, too, frequently criticizes revelers who crowd into “Tauerns, reaking still with vomitings” and whose “belly-cheare” results in them being “drawne out on a Beare” (228). Although Davies’ condemnation is more moral than epidemiological, one student found his “self-righteous and judgmental” tone similar to missives from college administrators that condemned students’ “selfish and reckless behavior” as the cause of soaring COVID-19 rates on campus (Haynie).
We also we discussed how both the plague and COVID-19 disproportionately affected the poor: “Two Plagues, in one…Both Famine, and Infection strikes them dead,” Davies writes (238). One of my students, a sociology major, brought in statistics that showed how COVID-19 outbreaks were ravaging vulnerable populations more quickly than privileged ones. More poignantly, one student spoke of volunteering at a food bank in the early days of the pandemic. She witnessed hungry children and parents whose minimum wage jobs in the service industry had been eliminated. One mother, a newly-unemployed housekeeper, wept as she asked my student to pray for her family.
Most of all, students connected with the apocalyptic mood of Davies’ poem. The early days of the pandemic, one student wrote in his reflection essay, “felt like an end-of-the-world movie.” Grocery shelves were bare; every passer-by was a potential carrier. Davies, too, describes the feeling of the End Times in London: “Witnesse our Citties, Townes, and Villages / Which Desolation, day and night, inuades / With Coffins (Cannon-like) on Carriages, / With trenches ram’d with Carkases, with Spades!” Davies vividly describes the bubonic plague’s gallery of memento mori: mass graves, quarantined houses, knelling death bells, and buboes.
I briefly detailed to my students The New-York Historical Society’s “History Responds” initiative that was in the process of collecting objects and ephemera related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We speculated that N95 masks, hand sanitizer, curbside pickup signs, and Zoom screenshots would represent the COVID-19 pandemic to future generations. Some symbols were less communal and more personal: one student mentioned her unworn prom dress; another, unused soccer cleats. I shared that my daughter’s little hands, chapped from constant washing, would always conjure up the early days of the pandemic for me: a kindergarten year, interrupted.
Throughout his poem, Davies allegorizes Death as an enthusiastic gravedigger and thorough street sweeper. After reviewing images from Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death (1522-1526), I placed my students in Zoom breakout rooms to discuss the following question: what is our pandemic’s figure of Death? Most identified the now-familiar Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s visual model of the coronavirus as our pandemic’s figure of Death: an “epidemiological Grim Reaper,” as one of my students put it. When our class celebrated the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine later that semester, one student lamented that Davies and his contemporaries never had the luxury of imagining a post-pandemic world in which Death no longer triumphed.
Our work with The Triumph of DEATH was brief and admittedly somewhat superficial. Before COVID, we would have focused more on the discontinuities between Davies’ world and ours. But my students needed something different from Davies’ text during those isolated and anxiety-ridden early days of the pandemic. They were adrift and unmoored: they needed connection, not complication. The Triumph of DEATH helped my students make sense of their experiences and, perhaps more importantly, feel less alone. As one student wrote, “It helps to know that others have survived pandemics…and when ours is over, I plan to tell our stories, just like Davies did.”
Courtenay, William J. “The Effect of the Black Death on English Higher Education.” Speculum 55.4, 1980, pp. 696–714. www.jstor.org/stable/2847661.
Davies, John. “Humours heau’n on earth with the ciuile warres of death and fortune.As also the triumph of death: or, the picture of the plague, according to the life; as it was in anno Domini. 1603.” Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership. Accessed April, 5 2021. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A69177.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext.
“Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death.” The Public Domain Review. Accessed March 2, 2022. www.publicdomainreview.org/collection/hans-holbeins-dance-of-death-1523-5.
Haynie, Michael J. “Last Night’s Selfish and Reckless Behavior.” Syracuse University News, 2020. https://news.syr.edu/blog/2020/08/20/last-nights-selfish-and-reckless-behavior/.
hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. London: Routledge, 2013.
SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. Accessed March 2, 2022. www.ncsacw.samhsa.gov/userfiles/files/SAMHSA_Trauma.pdf.
Venet, Alex Shevrin. “Role-Clarity and Boundaries for Trauma-Informed Teachers.” Educational Considerations, 44.3, 2019, pp. 1-9.
Nichole DeWall is a professor of English at McKendree University, a small liberal arts college in Lebanon, Illinois. She teaches medieval and early modern literature, as well as drama and composition courses. Her research focuses on teaching Shakespeare and representations of disease in early modern drama.