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How William Wordsworth Can Help Get Us Through Covid-19 Lockdown

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I like to think that I am pretty good at handling adversity by investing my hopes in kindness, empathy, love and dedication. The poxy virus unleashed on the globe seeks to strike humanity and create tribalism. However, at the same time, kindness is being unleashed across the globe to heal. While there is tribalism, there does also exist empathy. I have a strong belief in the power of the latter and the weakness of the former.

The amazing role of the digital construct cannot equally be ruled out, if seen in this sense of a spasmodic waiting and uncertainty in the world, which is increasingly restless and disorientated.

I have been reading the finest poets in English – and William Wordsworth is one of them. With luck, some spring sunshine and appreciating the abundant daffodils that Wordsworth described in his over-quoted poem beginning “I wandered lonely as a cloud…”

I will have to make do with imagination. Enforced isolation and limited wandering, lonely or not, is the order of the day since the Covid-19 lockdown. The reopening has been put off. Dove Cottage itself, normally a draw for tourists, is quieter than it has been since William and Dorothy were in residence 200 years ago.

It would be a stretch to call the Wordsworths the original home-workers, since they lived at a time when working “from home” was the norm and organised mass labour, let alone anything we would recognise as modern office work, was the exception. Wordsworth may have enjoyed being alone, but he was not a loner – as biographer Stephen Gill has pointed out in a short appreciation for The Wordsworth Trust. The poet did, however, perfect some habits of mind that would benefit anyone in forced isolation. The memory of those famous daffodils was available to him whenever he needed them, “for oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude”.

His approach maps precisely on to some of the advice on mindfulness and mental well-being that every large organisation is now offering to its staff as they endure weeks of enforced remote working.

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Workers are on their own, in more ways than one. The literature on how we behave in and after quarantine looks at evidence from the 2003 Sars epidemic and the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, among others. But in those cases the lockdown was limited in geographic scope and people were isolated for between 7 and 30 days. Even so, the effects could last as long as three years. Multinationals are already noting that workers really start to show the strain after four or five weeks.

No wonder they are rolling out mental health initiatives at speed. All the organisations that I’ve contacted since the pandemic took hold say they have seen a sharp increase in staff seeking advice from counseling services set up under their employee assistance programmes.

Daisy Fancourt of University College London is trying to map the psychological and social impact of this pandemic with a large-scale survey-based study that has already attracted more than 60,000 participants. “Things might get worse for people because [the lockdown] is going on for longer,” she said “but people might start to adapt. They might change their routines and settle into a rhythm.”

Wordsworth has something to offer here, too. Prof Fancourt and fellow researchers have conducted many studies into the impact of cultural engagement on mental well-being. In one paper published last year, they found that involvement in a creative activity, whether writing poetry or playing the piano, could improve the mood, by distracting from stress, prompting contemplation and developing self-confidence. Trying something new was particularly beneficial, they found.

Wordsworth has fortitude: like Keats has the quality to keep the readers spell bound with the lovely and strong imagery.

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Or you could simply enjoy the poetry: in Wordsworth’s day, liberal thinker John Stuart Mill attested to the value of reading his poems as “medicine for my state of mind”. His word-pictures are certainly a welcome alternative to allowing ourselves to be mocked by Microsoft Windows’ screen-saving stock photos of places we can no longer visit.

Coronavirus is not a holiday or a hobby break, of course. It risks making depressed couch-potatoes of even the most active and engaged. The barrage of bright-eyed advice to turn the crisis into a creative opportunity could increase pressure on employees already anxious about their uncertain destiny, as Prof Fancourt wisely points out. Among them are the creative workers and freelancers themselves, often hardest hit by the consequences of lockdown. For many people, she says, “success at the moment is just about coping.”

Even so, “Wordsworth’s poetry still has the power to transport us in imagination to a world of tranquility and harmony,” Jonathan Bate, author of Radical Wordsworth, wrote last week in a birthday blog post. As an act of self-care, recalling “rememberable things” and conjuring from the past joyous “spots of time”, as the poet called them, may just help some of us pull through.

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