It’s been attributed to authors in the 1800s, or to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, but none of that is true. Here’s the real story.
In case you haven’t been on social media in the past few months, you may have missed something that’s been making the internet rounds.
The social media posts usually go something like this.
There’s usually an image of an Edwardian or Victorian couple, or sometimes one from the Spanish Flu with face masks, like these ladies:
Then there’s some text, something like: “This poem was written in 1896 (or 1918, or 1919) but it’s SO relevant today. I can’t believe it!” or “How timeless!” and so on. The author, if they’re cited at all, is listed as Grace Ramsay/Kathleen O’Meara or Kitty O’Meara, or sometimes as “anonymous.”
Then comes the actual poem, which goes like this:
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice poem. I like it, though I’m not a great judge of poetry. But this poem wasn’t written by long dead authors in 1918 or 1869. It was posted on Facebook on March 13, 2020 and was written by Catherine “Kitty” O’Meara, a retired teacher from Madison, Wisconsin, in direct response to the Covid-19 pandemic lock down.
Kitty describes her inspiration for the poem in an interview with Oprah Magazine:
“I was anxious for the past few months. I knew this was coming and couldn’t be of service…I was getting kind of sad. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t help my friends. I was very worried about them. My husband said: ‘Write. Just write again.’ I kind of just sat down and wrote it…I saw the maps of receding pollution over China and Europe. I thought, ‘There you go. There’s something of blessing in all suffering.’ And I thought with my passionate love for the Earth, maybe that’s one good thing.”
Just days after posting on Facebook, Kitty’s poem went viral, and ever since then folks have been sharing it everywhere as a form of commentary on our current times.
The reality of the stituation—who Kitty O’Meara really is and the actual context of her poem—are easily verifiable with a simple Google search. Yet, many of the social media posts that share the poem insist it was written during the Spanish Flu, or in 1869, or cite another author entirely as the source. The error became so common that there’s even a Snopes page dedicated to it, and Reuters had to fact-check it as well. Even when her poem was read aloud on MSNBC, says Kitty, it was said to have been written in 1890. She found this bewildering: “I give up,” she said in an interview with Deseret News. “Don’t journalists fact-check anything anymore?”
So why has Kitty’s poem been given this false historical context?
Part of it may be confusing her with another author who has a very similar name. Kathleen O’Meara, who wrote under the pseudonym Grace Ramsay, was an author and journalist during the late Victorian era who was well-known for her biographies of famous Catholics. Her supposedly best work, The Bells of the Sanctuary (1871), is a series of biographies about famous Catholics and was very well received during her time. Given the similarities between their names, and the time period O’Meara wrote (the 1860s-1890s), it makes sense that people would confuse the two of them and peg Kitty’s poem with an 1869 date.
What about the Spanish Flu references, though?
Personally, I think it comes from an urge to connect to the past. As people look for reassurance that we will survive this global pandemic, they really only have one major and relatively recent historical event to fall back on: the Spanish Flu. It makes sense, then, that someone might want to believe that this poem came from that time, and that people back then felt much as we do now about their experiences—even if none of them lived through a lock down quite like ours.
If you want to find actual literature that addresses the Spanish Flu from 1918, however, you’re mostly out of luck. That’s because there’s a reason that the Spanish Flu didn’t really become part of the national conversation until Alfred W. Crosby’s landmark 1997 book, The Forgotten Pandemic. Following so closely on the heels of WWI, the pandemic was rolled up into the horrors of war, something people wanted to forget as quickly as possible and move on. As a result, there are very few examples of it in art and literature of the time, save for everyday items like ordinary people’s personal letters, diaries or newspaper articles.
There are shadows, though, if you know where to look.
Literature professor Elizabeth Outka cites such classics as T.S. Elliot’s poem The Wasteland, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and the stories of H. P. Lovecraft as all containing themes and imagery from the pandemic, whether they address it directly or not. Themes about death, grief, the fragility of the body, physical transformation, disintegration and loss are all related to the pandemic.
Inspired by her personal experiences with the Spanish Flu—a soldier she dated died from it, after he’d nursed her through her own illness—it is a hallucinatory combination of wartime propaganda and surreal experiences with illness. After surviving the flu, the main character, Miranda, feels disconnected from life, her body, and history, a sentiment that was echoed by the author herself in a 1936 interview about Pale Rider: “[The flu] simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered.” If you’re looking for a piece of literature to connect to today, Pale Rider may be a good bet.
As for poetry, though, there’s less of that around, at least that I could find. While Professor Outka cites The Wasteland as related to the Spanish Flu, I could only really find one poem that addressed it directly and was written during the time it was happening. In the course of researching this post, I came across a poem by Joe Bogle, African American man from Knoxville, Tennessee, whose work appeared in the Knoxville Journal & Tribune in 1918. Here it is:
The Spanish Flu
“Listen here, children,” said Deacon Brown,
“There’s something new just struck this town
And it’s among the white and the colored, too
And I think they call it the Spanish Flu.”
They say it starts right in your head:
You begin to sneeze and your eyes turn red.
You then have a tight feeling in your chest,
And you cough at night and you just can’t rest.
Your head feels dizzy when you are on your feet;
You go to your table and you just can’t eat.
And if this ever happens to you,
You can just say you got the Spanish Flu.
Now, I got a brother and his name is John,
And he went to buy a Liberty Bond.
And he stopped to hear the big band play,
Upon the corner of Church and Gay.
But when he heard about the Flu–
It tickled me and would tickle you–
He bought his bond and went away:
Said he’d hear the band some other day.
But just as he got down on Vine,
He began to stagger like he was blind.
And a doctor who was passing by
Said, “What is the matter with this country guy?”
But as soon as he asked John a question or two,
He said, “Good night, you got the Spanish Flu.”
No matter who wrote it or when, though, Kitty O’Meara’s Covid-19 inspired poem, “And People Stayed Home” speaks to our time, and is worth reading or hearing in its own right. Below you will find a couple of readings of this poem, if you’re so inclined. Enjoy! 🙂
This one has music:
And this one has more of a New Age vibe to it:
What about you, Dear Readers? Are there any books or poetry that are helping you get through these strange times? Personally, I find myself not being able to read very much, as focusing is hard. What are you guys reading these days?