Marseille, France

In the year 1720, the last great occurrence of bubonic plague struck the port city of Marseille, France, killing half of its citizens in less than a year.


June 16, 1720

The bells were ringing all throughout the day,
Announcing to the inhabitants that
The thing in which we all have fear, has come!
We waited next to the port yesterday,
Watching a barge docked by the lazaret.
Grand-Saint-Antoine set sail from the Levant,
And brought with him the plague that would ensue.

I heard that all on board were dead—pity.
Then came the talk that some were still alive.
Of ghastly form, they held Death in disguise.
If not for those of avarice intent,
The ones whose gilded tongues had wrought ideas
Of lost cargo needed for fairs upon
The weakened hearts of the authorities,
We might have braved the distemper to come.
To no avail, for their decision stands.
Let they the barge into our port, indeed.
And from its womb did birth this black disease.

The bells of Notre-Dame del’ Garde rang loud,
And brought me from such slumb’rous life to see
The coming of such devastation. Here
He walks about in such hideous guise,
Among the streets of summer-time Marseille.
His name is Death and Mercy knows he not.
The knells a warning to all whom can hear:
“His prowl has begun! His prowl has begun!”

I know a notable portion of town;
(Those working the affair at the shipyard),
Has already been impregnated with
This plight, this scourge, this infectious disease.
Low pulse have they, heaviness in the head.
Cadaverous they look and walk about
With fear inside their sad and weary eyes.
As soon as they felt the first strokes of plague,
One could determine that they were convinced,
Their sickness was incurable, they gave
Their hope away immediately then,
Before the symptoms came to be so bleak.
For this was learnt from Europe’s history.
They know that Death is out to collect dues,
And on his list are they—And now he comes.

The bells brought me to my window to see,
Looking down upon the wide thoroughfare,
That as a Daemon courier he goes
From door to door delivering the post.
Delivering the Fate into their hands,
A writ of condemnation in black ink;
The souls forfeited, damned to depths of hell.
No hope exists for those of whom he marks.

He takes the very chance of survival
Away from those poor sorry souls that day.
It’s known that in three days or less they will
Be found expired in their very homes
After a visit from so dark a man.
Thus at the sound of bells a’ ringing here
Ran children for their mother’s arms at once.
The streets emptied of all who were about,
For when, his sword of pestilence, you touch,
None could escape the strong grasp of the grave.

Then as the specter came more close to view,
Upon the horizon of the street I
Saw such an image of malignant Death
Drawn by the Lord above in such a form
To cause the heat of summer’s day to ebb
And bring upon my skin the flesh of geese.
It froze the breath inside my lungs to ice,
And caused the fear of God upon my mind.
That such a reaction he could instill
Is witness to his sad reputation.
Yes, Death will have no lovers on this day.

His form echoes a stately raven’s guise.
Those birds who fly above a bloodied field,
And clean the lea of those who die at war.
A chilling mask adorns his monstrous face,
Its nose so long, hooked like a raven’s beak.
Upon his frame was he in sable shroud.
Like wrapped in Satan’s deadly black embrace.

And as I watched him move from house to house,
The wake of his melancholy patrol
Did seem to bleed the street of its color.
Like water spilt upon a fresh painting,
The ambience did wane by his presence.
That such a gait could cause intense distress
Upon his viewers sight, though inherent,
Was multiplied by his ebon raiment.

Aside from what is blatantly overt,
I heard a few rumors about his ways.
That he does not distinguish between these:
The rich, the poor, the wise, the dumb, the young,
The old, the frail, the strong, the prince, the priest.
No occupation can save one from Death.
No situation can render one safe.
We all are vulnerable to this fate.
Thus all avoid his gaze and watch his place
Lest he be tempted to visit their home,
And bring massacre upon their abode.

I sat there musing at my windowsill,
Upon that servant of the devil’s will,
Listening to the bells in the distance.
Silently thanking God above for my
Distance from such a fate, from their demise,
For here I sit in youth, hidden from Death.
He cannot reach and I will not approach
That blackened spawn of Satan’s masquerade.
And once that phantom left from out my view
The burden of that thought had left my mind.
And with his exit came the sweet return
Of life upon the gentle summer’s breeze
That wafted through my open-wide window.

So sharp the smell of bread upon the air
Was sign to me that my father was here
Thus I did saunter down the stairs to greet
My lovely papa, weary from his work.
That night we made blessing on wine and bread,
We sat in mirth and merriment, divine.
Much story, rhyme, and fable told this night
Happiness bountiful as food or wine.
We ate in peace and comfort so sublime.
Thus did this meal as such occur tonight.

After this I returned to my window,
Once time had reached the middle of the night.
And set my eyes distant upon the bay.
Such beautiful a sight did grace my eyes:
So calm the sea, no ripple to be seen
And like a sapphire it’s surface sheen.
The stars did pool on its reflection like
Some scattered diamonds upon azure glass.
Such calm water, the sea utterly still,
As if the sea did slumber with us all.

The moon did shine such luster on this night,
Cascading light upon the cityscape,
The city streets below were silent now,
The maze of houses laid before my view,
And not a soul was seen about the burg.
The fireflies of summer did then glow,
The only life to stir or make a sound
About the streets that hold shadows below.
The time was ripe for my ascent to dream,
Thus I did make the trip back to my room,

And I sat down to sleep, in comfort on my bed.


August 1st, 1720

I woke to sadness deep, for I had lost
The red ember of hope inside my heart.
Twas doused by the impure waters of those
Who lay about festering in decay.
The sickened stench was nigh unbearable;
The viscous fluids seeping from the dead
Was boiled by the heat inside this house,
To cause a dreadful stench to pierce the air.

I fell asleep last night amid my tears
For mourn did I, my family was torn
From life so quick I had no chance to part
From them in love. So sudden was this death.
And now they lay in eternal rigor,
About this house in beds and chairs as if
They slept so sound as babes were want, it seemed.
So sad my tears did keep me company
Inside this silent dark mortuary.
Instinct did tell that it was time to leave
This putrid air lest I catch the disease.

Thus I did hasten down the stairs to greet.
The king who oversees the mortal world,
Who half the time he shines upon our sphere,
And all the flora drinks his yellow dew.
From out my door, the sun, it’s glare so strong
Did shine so bright a light to blind my eyes.
I gave a minute for my vision to
Resume its sight upon the field of view,
And such a solemn sight did reach my eyes,
To which no speech is worth nor apt to tell
The carnage lain about the busy street.

So numerous the bodies filled the road,
That they provoked the imagery of that
Bloody wake of King Leonidas who,
Under pinion of Spartan tutelage,
Laid waste of Persian blood at the hot gates.
Twas rare to find a bit of pavement there,
For bodies littered all about the way.
Twas little space for spot of foot to step,
No inch nor meter left without its space
Consumed by those who lay in sick decay.

The heat did amplify the rotten stench
Of sweat and blood that seep from the deceased.
The fluids mixing, boiling in the heat,
To cause a stew of foul ingredients.
So sick a sight did make me want to retch
And reach my arms up to The Lord in doubt:
“If you are so benevolent dear God
Then why afflict the world with such malaise?
Did you not swear to Noah and his sons
The deluge of his day would not repeat?
Then why are we lost in this flood of death?
Forgive the sins of this hallowed city!
If not perhaps, this day will cause you rue!”
I waited there for a response to come,
Alas! No sound did carry on the wind.

Resign did I to sit upon my porch
To think of all the life the world has lost.
This darkness breeds and multiplies like fire
Consuming all of man inside her wrath.
What is the purpose of this grand design?
The climax to be thrown upon a bier,
Is this the only course through life to take?
The only destination: Hades’ shores?
If so to what purpose did God forsake
My family and though myself did spare?
Such thoughts of forlorn fancy filled my mind.

I looked upon the road in fear and loss
To see the throngs of living mourning death.
They walked here like a lamenting parade,
The men in mourners garb, the women veiled.
And as a symphony of dissonance
They went and sung a shrieking melody.
The composer; Death of course, did string such notes
Of crying, dying, screaming into this…
This song of such sad depredation clear.

And as I looked into the crowded street
I felt the first breath of mortality
For in the crowd was seen that sable knight
To which did haunt my every dream this week.
I watched as he did move through the infirm
Across the crowded cobbled street he walked
So close to me. Thus I remembered then
That since last night my head was wrought with pain
To such degree that I am feeble weak.

My eyes are sensitive to all the light
Which all the world does bathe inside today.
These signs to me were actualized right then
By sight of that lithe shade among the crowd.
Inside my mind a thought resounded clear:
Am I infected with this mortal plight,
A force superior to all remedies?
No, Death’s seductive charm does not hold sway
Upon my broken heart, for life I crave.

The only reaction was left to flee
From this city, this morose company.
I ran with all my might, but blindly so,
Among the crooked streets and alleyways.
This city, strange and foreign, felt to me,
No claim have I upon my sweet Marseille,
Not tied by limb or future to this place.
Thus race do I to forget all the pain
And leave behind this horrid history.
For life is waiting upon clearer skies.

I ran until the houseless fields were shown
Yet one sight by the gate did catch my eyes:
There on the road lay trampled one white rose
To such a sight I broke down into tears,
For who would show such gentle nature scorn?
O pallid rose! So much we share indeed,
Just ripe and blossomed, lovely yet in dirt
You lay so broken, lost of innocence,
Devoid of life, molested by the world.
O saintly rose! How you affect me so!

Into the fields I ran, to verdant groves,
There Life did wait so patiently for me.
Yet I did find inside the forest there
A wall of stone so tall, no end in sight.
I ran along the edge to see if there
Would be a break among the bricks to cross
Into the rustic countryside of France.
I sought until a sentry caught my eye,
Whose garb did indicate to me that he
Was soldier to the King Louis himself.

“Oh sir if you could be so kind to tell
Where can I find a port to which I can
Exit this hellish city filled with plague?”
To which the man responded with the words:
“Oh sweet child, I am sorry, truly.
This is my post and I cannot permit
The citizens of that city to pass
Lest they might spread the plague to country fast.
Do sit and wait here, I will get you food.”

There I did sit upon the earthen ground,
And sent my eyes to look there heaven-bound,
The sky, a sanguine hue, did catch my eyes,
A fitting color for the day’s events.
Though warmth was brought into my heart for once
I heard that sailors have a rhyme that says;

“The sky is red
Thus hope is had,
If this is seen
Upon the night,
The morn be bright!”

And as I looked into the crimson sky
A weariness did creep upon me then,

And sleep did pull me through, inside a dreamless sea.


August 2nd 1720:

I woke so dazed into the mid of night,
To see a silent world that seems so strange.
My senses dull, my head heavy as if,
Perhaps, a draught of nightshade runs its course
Throughout my many veins and arteries.
I look about to figure where I am,
A forest dark, I see, surrounds me now.
I look to my left, there the sentry sleeps
A basket of uneaten food near him.
The only light amid the darkened wood
A single lantern, shuttered, barely glowing
Leaving shadows dancing on the darkness.

The midnight breezes running through the trees.
The leaves there shaking, making that sweet sound,
As if the forest gives it’s mighty breath
And sleeps with us, it breathing in and out.
Yet here amid the howl of wind there is
A sound of such unnatural design.
Its source must be so deep inside the woods
The sound of creaking, breaking branches, there.

Perhaps an evil dryad roams about!
Or maybe faerie sprights do fly around.
Perhaps an ancient daemon spies on me,
It plotting how to snatch me in the night.
My heartbeat quickens as the sound grows near,
Closer, closer, nearly at the edge now.
Louder! Louder! Branches breaking near me…
I close my eyes in fear of what I’ll see
And hear do I the sound has disappeared.
A second passes, I begin to peak.

Relief! A laugh escapes my mouth for it
Is but a wayward fox roaming around.
The silence reigns, an owl’s hoot resounds…
Again I sent my eyes searching to see
The Archer- in the greatest vale, he hung
Amidst the sable curtain in the sky-
As if to shoot his light upon the Earth,
So beautiful the stars that fill the sky.

I tried to raise my-self to stretch a bit
But once I moved an inch I felt sharp pain
Inside the grove between my arm and torso.
I felt around that area to find
A large round lump, sensitive to the touch.
I cried immediately, for I know
This is the surest sign to which one knows
That one has the affliction of buboes.

My hope, or what was left, deserted me,
My eyes then fill with tears of my remorse,
Quietly I cry the Ave Maria
Yet, while I beseech God with my frail lips
My heart is silent as I soon will be.
And like the darkness, hopelessness engulfs
It blankets me until I fall asleep….

The bells awoke me to a morning bright,
Their sound emitting from the distant burg.
A chorus chiming of beautiful birds
Did fill the air with their great joyous song.
The smell of crisp morning air on the breeze-
All this was ruined by the bitter thought.

What is there but to sit and accept fate?
Yet rather than submit to my own fear
I pretty myself, like a queen, before
The Lord does take my soul to purgatory.
There is no option left for me to take
But sit and wait for that Angel to come,
And on his mighty pinions fly to bliss.

Yet in his place does travel near to me
The one who instills fear into my heart
That messenger of Hell, the sable prince!
And in this moment all becomes so clear;
I know that Death is out to collect dues
And on his list am I—and now he comes.

I have the strength to neither run nor flee
So sit do I as he stands at my feet.
The mask he wears upon his face, so black
And twisted, truly ugly. “No!” I cry,
As he then reaches down to kill me there.
But wait, no harm is felt in his soft grip.
So odd, this is not what I expected
From one so steeped in taking others’ lives.

To satisfy my curiosity
I looked upon his sacrilegious mask
And to my shock I found there human eyes,
Such true remorse did I see deep inside
Those normal eyes, not daemon black but blue!
My pulse did quicken as I said aloud:
“Are you not the ghost, the agent of death?”

“Of course I’m not my sweet, I’m just a plague doctor.”


Featured Image: The Plague in Marseille in 1720

Corey J. Browning is a poet from Brooklyn, New York who finds inspiration in the poetry of classical writers such as Dante Alighieri, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and John Keats. He has written previously in historical journals such as “The Casebook Examiner” and “Ripperologist.” Corey is currently working towards a degree in English Literature at the City University of New York.

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