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UnPoetia:Triste et malum est

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Triste et malum est is a poem written by doctor poet Wilfred Owen during COVID-19. The Latin title is taken from Pandemus 20.19 (Plague) of the Roman poet Moronicus and means "it is sad and bad". It is followed by ex covid mori, which means "to die from covid". One of Owen's most renowned works, the poem is known for its horrific imagery of a coronavirus patient.


The text presents a vignette from the travellers returning to the UK at an airport; specifically, of repatriated British from Wuhan hearing a cough from a suspected patient. In the rush after the cough is heard, one traveller is unable to get his mask on in time. The speaker of the poem describes the gruesome effects of the virus on a man and concludes that, if one were to see first-hand the reality of coronavirus, one might not be so keen to attend luxury cruises and corona parties. These horrors are what inspired Owen to write the poem, and because he did, he was able to voice his own opinion on the stupidity of anti-vaxxers, and what it was like to be in those very situations.


Throughout the poem, and particularly strong in the last stanza, there is a running commentary, a letter to Donald Trump, an unimportant politician during the pandemic, who encouraged—"without rest"—Karens to disregard lockdown guidelines through his speeches, e.g. "We have it totally under control." and "It's going to disappear."

The first draft of the poem, indeed, was dedicated to Trump. A later revision amended this to "a certain President", though this did not make it into the final publication, either, as Owen apparently decided to address his poem to the larger audience of mask denouncers in general such as the women who coughed at shop employees whom they regarded as cowards for wearing masks. In the last stanza, however, the original intention can still be seen in Owen's address.

Bent double, under luggage and bags,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through queues,
Till on the airport lights we turned our backs,
And towards our distant taxi, well overdue.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their phones,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the tones
Of a cough coming loudly behind.

Virus! COVID! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting on the clumsy N95 just in time,
But someone still was coughing and stumbling
And screaming like a man in fire or lime.—
Bright through the quarantine panes and large white light,
As under a graveyard, I saw him dying.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, coughing, choking, dying.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Inside the ICU that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every beep, the life-support
Come measuring saturation of the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as ever, the death report
Of vile, incurable sadness told by innocent tongues,—
My friend, you must tell, without rest.
To young men ardent for a desperate party,
The new Truth: Triste et malum est,
Ex covid mori.


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