Those who remained in plague-ridden towns were subject to strict lockdowns and enforced periods of self-isolation or quarantine – a practice introduced to England from Italy in the late sixteenth century (Newman 2012: 809).
Whole households were quarantined whenever someone was discovered with the tell-tale plague blisters and buboes. Doors were padlocked and watchmen appointed to ensure no one came or went from the house for a period of up to forty days.
Quarantine increased the likelihood of infection spreading within the shut-up household but also placed an economic burden on those unable to work within, although subsidies were available for the poorest households (Newman 2012). We are by no means the first generation to be counting the socio-economic costs of pandemic.
An entry in Hull’s civic records, at the Hull History Centre, notes the release on 9 November 1637 of Marvell’s parents from a period of self-isolation ‘for suspicion of infection’ lasting ‘fourteen days or above’ (Bench Book V: 104).
Their quarantine was triggered by their servant, Jane Pease, who died of plague and was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Hull on 29 October 1637 (von Maltzahn 2005: 23). An account of Hull’s lockdown in the mid-1630s paints a grim picture of an entire town in quarantine:
… the gates were kept continually shut, except when provisions were brought in: all assemblies and meetings were forbidden; the schools were discontinued, and the churches entirely unfrequented. The whole town soon exhibited a scene of horror, silence, and distraction: the streets were unfrequented, and the country people fearing to attend the markets, made provisions excessively dear. (von Maltzahn 2005: 22)
As we prepare for Marvell’s 400th anniversary during the third Covid-19 lockdown, it is worth reflecting on the shared experience of pandemic that now connects us to Marvell. Pandemic shaped Marvell’s poetry, and not only through his references to plague and disease.
We might, too, see a kindred spirit in the Marvell who escapes the confines of urban life during the Second Plague Pandemic into the green-blue landscapes of his creative imagination. In poems like Upon Appleton House and The Garden, we find a Marvell for our own times – a poet who can teach us to find comfort in the created world, and in lines of poetry to discover ‘a green thought in a green shade’ for ourselves.
Stewart Mottram is Senior Lecturer in English, Co-Director of the Cultures of Incarceration Centre and Deputy Director of the Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarships Centre for Water Cultures. He is the organiser of the Marvell at 400: Life, Literature, and Legacy online event on Wednesday 31 March 2021.