Locking-down with Byron (and a few others)

By Jennifer and Rebecca Douglas, 29th May 2020

When in mid -March the BBC Six o’clock News on Radio 4 suddenly chose to finish each bulletin with “something uplifting”, you knew that, in the words of Noel Coward ,“ There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner “.

Of immediate concern was that quite a few of my neighbours and friends had already started to self -isolate before lockdown became official. Many were on their own and the prospect of them remaining on their own for up to three months was rather alarming.

As a peripatetic teacher it was only a question of time before Schools were closed to me – and closed in general. I began to wonder what I could do to keep in contact with the self- isolating and friends and family that I was now not likely to see for some time to come. How could we keep a regular conversation going without resorting to postings on social media, that don’t really engage on much of a personal level.

I thought that an illustrated poem a day might be a way to cheer people up and offer something different to send out each day. So even if there wasn’t much else new to talk about, we would at least have the poems and pictures.

Another reason for illustrating the poems was that I was keen to collaborate with my elder daughter, Rebecca, again. The previous year, when I had curated a small exhibition at The LMA, Rebecca had bailed me out with some very clever artwork. So now I was interested to see what her “take” on the poems might be.

Rebecca is a digital artist – and as lock-down came into being, was watching her online commission and design work dry up, as manufacture ceased and people began to hunker down. She loves story- telling and so illustration comes very naturally to her. She said she would give illustrating poems a try and opted to use a speed drawing technique which meant you could watch the graphic take shape as the poem is recited.

Collaborating on the poetry project has enabled us to keep some sort of routine to our days. I have enjoyed being able to spend part of each day simply reading or re-reading poetry. And we have both enjoyed working together, even if there has been a certain amount of eye-rolling at some of my more random choices.  I wanted to mix the well-known with the less familiar; the profound with the more knockabout; to remind people of old favourites and perhaps to put much quoted lines back into their original and sometimes less recognised context .

I cannot recall when I first became aware that “ The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold…” but it was well before I had to tackle Byron and “Don Juan” specifically, as part of my A level English syllabus . And what a delight and a relief “Don Juan “was  –  as we  were also saddled with Milton taking eons to lose Paradise and even longer to regain it again.

Like many a teenager, I loved Byron. I saw him as the Bad Boy Rockstar of his age; I loved his wit, his calculated  flamboyance ; his devil-may -care attitude . But in selecting the daily poems, initially Byron , didn’t enter the frame – quite literally . “Don Juan” is dazzlingly clever and very funny but also very long. We steered clear of long poems and anything metaphysical – which would take a Sistine Chapel-worth of drawing to try and depict.

But when, during lock-down, we lost a much cherished family pet, it was then Byron who came immediately to mind. The wistfulness  of  “ We will go no more a-roving” seemed to fit the mood of our household perfectly. And this in turn reminded me of the simple and touching romanticism of “She Walks In Beauty.”

We post new poems every day at 10 am on our Youtube Channel – Keeping Downley Up – and via a local community network group and now on Twitter. I think of poetry as a bit like a perfect “Tweet” – the encapsulation of a moment, feeling or thought.

The response to the poems has been both interesting and productive. Interesting in the feelings and memories the illustrated poems have conjured and the far- ranging  conversations they have triggered. Productive , as a gentle means of keeping tabs on others  and how they are coping –  I have often been able to judge from comments if someone needs an extra email or phone call.

We’ll Go No More A-roving

She Walks In Beauty

The Destruction of Sennacherib

Keeping Downley Up – Full playlist