Youth in Retreat: The Decameron in Quarantine

In which these most unprecedented times prove to have some precedent after all, and crisis invites us to re-imagine our conditions for living. 

By Jenny Lee 

So they gathered into groups and kept clear of everyone else, shutting themselves up in houses where no one was sick and where they could live comfortably … not speaking to anyone outside or hearing any news of the dead or sick, but enjoying music and what other pleasures they could muster. – Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (trans. J. G. Nichols)

1348: As the Black Death ravages Florence, ten wealthy young people flee the city for the countryside, where they spend ten days telling stories, singing songs, napping, and flirting. This is the set-up for Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a framing narrative surrounding one hundred short stories about love, sex, trickery, and the vicissitudes of fortune.

I opened my copy of the Decameron in mid-March, as public buildings in the city shut their doors indefinitely. Having flown home from Spain via the UK a few days earlier and subsequently developed a dry cough, I was instructed to stay home and monitor my temperature, and made a plague-themed reading list to work through during what I naively hoped would be two weeks of isolation. As two weeks stretched into four, it was this framing narrative, not the stories themselves, that I kept turning back to.

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Breugel’s Triumph of Death, painted two centuries after the publication of the Decameron, underscores the cataclysmic effects of the recurrent plague outbreaks on the European psyche. In the corner, a couple grimly clings to love and music-making, stalked by death. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Boccaccio opens with a harrowing description of the bubonic plague’s trail of destruction in Florence, including not only gruesome details of the dead and dying, but profound changes in the social fabric of the city: family members deserting each other, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of the labour force in the form of the servant class. Florence is a city without boundaries, where distinctions between sibling and stranger, sick and well, and rich and poor blur and then give way to abject chaos.

Even as the narrators of the Decameron try to avoid the pestilence – it’s rarely mentioned after this passage – they’re marked, or changed, by the collapse of the structures they’ve always known. (Half of the population of the city would die from the plague.) In and around their bawdy stories, we glimpse a new social order which this lost generation might dream into being; the microcosmic society they establish in exile is peaceful, leisurely, and gender-equitable.

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In John William Waterhouse’s 1911 painting A Tale from the Decameron, the exiles pass self-isolation in dreamy, pastoral splendour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

The Decameron reads like a long-form negotiation of social and sexual mores, the kind of examination that we perform during a crisis. Boccaccio, writing in the early 1350s, muses that women were noticeably less chaste after the plague year, having dispensed with the taboo against showing their bodies to men. He explicitly critiques the customs which confined well-off women in their homes without recreation or socialization. His storytellers prize wit, quick thinking, and sexual freedom over rank and noble birth. The hypocrisy of priests (a recurring theme) is a worse moral crime for them than sleeping with a married woman.

Between chapters, on Instagram, I scrolled through the words rent strike and mutual aid networks and capitalism is the virus. The luckiest among us, in isolation at home, had time to watch the structures sold to us as natural and inevitable faltering in the face of immense – but predictable – upheaval. Like Boccaccio’s youth in retreat, we thought: there must be a better way we could do this.

On the tenth day, the youths return to Florence without much fanfare, go to church, and return to their homes. It is left for the reader to decide what they bring back with them, and what they have left behind.

Worthy of His Words: Wordsworth 250

It’s the 250th anniversary of Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s birth, and his love for nature continues to resonate with contemporary audiences.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I learned that April 7th was the 250th birthday of Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), I knew we had to tribute his legacy in some way. And what’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Wordsworth’s poems?

That’s right: nature.

As we isolate ourselves these days, it’s easy to feel lonely. But it seems that many of us have turned to nature as our saving grace. Nature is known to boost mental health and well-being – and now, when we’re unable to go to public places, a solo walk outdoors can do us a world of good.

William Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Robert Southey professed a profound regard for nature. So what better time to celebrate one of the most famous English writers of all time (and a personal favourite) than now, as we rely on nature to preserve our sanity? The timing of the #Wordsworth250 commemoration may seem unfortunate, but it’s also rather apt. Though events scheduled in the Lake District and northwestern England for the year-long celebration have been cancelled or moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the works of England’s former Poet Laureate.

The Lake District, the region where Wordsworth was born and later lived. Photo: Robert J. Heath

Nature’s offerings are bountiful: fresh air, tranquil scenery, ambient sounds and smells. It’s no wonder humans worship nature, in a sense. In remembering Wordsworth, we can appreciate how eloquently he conveys his love of nature, to which I’m sure many of us can relate. The sense of connection we derive from our shared love of nature provides us with some common ground, as the human experience is an integral element of Romantic poetry.

Interestingly enough, Wordsworth wrote much of his most famous work, The Prelude (1799), during a time of intense stress and loneliness while living in Germany. It was intended as part of a larger work titled The Recluse, which was never finished. I think the theme of isolation throughout Wordsworth’s poetry holds some relevance to our current situation, a consoling thought for anyone reading poems alone in their room (ahem, me).

Wordsworth is well-known for his ability to take readers through countryside rambles, using sensory imagery and lines heaving with emotion. His descriptions are vivid but also abstract, allowing us to travel to a site ourselves. Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798) does just that. Upon reading, we’re transported to the landscape above the Abbey, taking in the lush scenery and sublime beauty of nature through the experience of the speaker.

Richard Carruthers’ 1818 portrait of William Wordsworth. Collection of The Wordsworth Trust. Photo: Art UK

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798), from lines 93-105

Wordsworth lets us witness the scene (and the speaker’s relationship with it) as if we were there too. How does he do this? Through senses and the imagination. Wordsworth saw imagination as a spiritual force. Famous for invoking the power of the sublime – whereby words incite thoughts and emotions beyond the ordinary – Wordsworth confronts the metaphysical, exploring concepts of time, space, knowing, and being. It can therefore reassure us to escape into nature through his words on the page. So even when we can’t walk through the countryside, we can see, smell, and hear it so convincingly as if we are there – through imagination.

William Havell’s painting “Tintern Abbey in a bend of the Wye” (1804). Wordsworth would have walked here a few years before when writing his 1798 poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. Photo: Wikimedia

Why do we love interacting with nature so much, anyway? Here we’re shown how rejuvenated Wordsworth’s speaker feels to be out of doors observing the ruins of Tintern Abbey:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din,
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too

Wordsworth, lines 22-30

Nature awakens our senses through sights, sounds, smells, and even touch – sitting in the grass, or feeling the wind lift your hair. Wordsworth was a master at evoking these sensations in his poetry, which is why he’s lauded as one of the most iconic British poets of all time – we really do feel his experiences as if they could be our own. In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, the pull of our individual relationships with nature still holds weight with readers worldwide.

I’m an ardent fan of Romantic poetry at the best of times (if you couldn’t already tell). But despite the slant of my own opinion, if you’re feeling cooped up, I encourage you to check out Wordsworth’s poems and marvel at the splendour of nature. Perhaps his works will inspire you to take a solitary walk outdoors, or maybe you’ll go there from the comfort of your living room – but either way, you might just feel transported for a while.

After all, there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery to refresh your mind and soul. In remembering Wordsworth, we can do just that.

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

Wordsworth, from lines 134-146
You can read some of Wordsworth’s poetry here, here, and here.
The Prelude (1799)
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (1798)
For more on isolation, poetry, and the power of the mind to take us elsewhere, check out Adriana Wiszniewska on Emily Dickinson’s solitary lifestyle and its impact on her work.