Poetic licence: the Museum gets lyrical
To celebrate National Poetry Day, we’re taking a look at the diverse world of poetry at the Museum. In fact, this post alludes to the form of a haiku: 5 poems inspired by objects, 7 poems on objects, and 5 miscellaneous poetry-based nuggets from the Museum. It’s also a bit of an epic – so enjoy!
5 poems inspired by objects
You might have heard of John Keats being inspired by various Greek antiquities in the Museum to write his Ode on a Grecian Urn. Or that the statue of Ramesses II in Room 4 has an intimate connection with Shelley’s Ozymandias. Here are extracts from some other poems about or inspired by objects in the collection.
1. The Burden of Nineveh by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1822–1888)
At over 4 metres tall, the Assyrian winged bulls or lamassu are some of the largest objects in the Museum. They once flanked a gateway in a king’s palace and arrived at the Museum in 1852.
Rossetti’s poem begins with a visit to the Museum to look at Greek art, but he is sidetracked on his way out by the spectacle of the lamassu being hoisted up the steps. A fun section predicts future civilisations presuming them to be relics of London rather than of Nineveh!
Sighing, I turned at last to win,
Once more the London dirt and din;
And as I made the swing-door spin,
And issued, they were hoisting in,
A wing-èd beast from Nineveh.
A human face the creature wore,
And hoofs behind and hoofs before,
And flanks with dark runes fretted o’er.
‘Twas bull, ’twas mitred minotaur
2. The Benin Bronzes by George the Poet (b. 1991)
In 2015 George the Poet took up our Huge History Lesson challenge to investigate and get inspired by a Museum object. George’s poem tells the story of the Benin bronzes, a series of plaques depicting the Benin court following Europe’s first contact with West Africa in the 15th century.
3. The Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802)
The Portland Vase may be named after its former owner, the Duchess of Portland, but it is in fact a Roman glass vessel from 2,000 years ago. It is perhaps best known for inspiring the work of potter Josiah Wedgwood.
In 1791 Wedgwood sent a copy of the vase to his friend, the botanist and poet Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles). Darwin wrote a homage to the object that was illustrated with plates by William Blake. Admired by Coleridge and Wordsworth, the verse helped to bring the vase to a wider public.
Over the fine forms of Portland’s mystic urn,
Here by the fallen columns and disjoined arcades,
On mouldering stones beneath deciduous shades,
Sits humankind in hieroglyphic state.
4. Inscribed on a Mummy Case by Edward Carpenter (1844–1929)
In Room 62, alongside many other mummies, there is a coffin decorated in gold leaf with a painted wooden portrait of a Greek youth named Artemidorus.
On it, the Greek inscription says APTEMIΔѠPE EYΨYXI, which translates as ‘O Artemidorus, Farewell’. This captivated the poet-philosopher Edward Carpenter, who wrote this moving elegy, the first line of which is ‘Artemidorus, Farewell’…
They wrap the sacred linen o’er thy head,
Thy features and thy hair they cover up,
And round thy arms thy fingers and thy hands
They wind and wind and wind and wind the bands,
And I shall see thee nevermore, my own.
And then they’ll paint
Thy likeness on the outer mummy case.
5. Homage to the British Museum by William Empson (1906–1984)
Since its arrival at the Museum in 1911, the small wooden Polynesian sculpture of the Pacific god A’a has been a source of fascination and inspiration to artists, poets and others across the world. Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso both had their own casts made of the figure.
In 1932 poet William Empson wrote a poem about A’a and the Museum, suggesting the figure could be seen as a god for the British Museum itself.
There is a supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield…
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world…
grant his reign over the entire building.
7 poems on objects
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (r. 669–631 BC) collected a library of thousands of cuneiform tablets in his palace at Nineveh. It included letters, legal texts, lists of people, animals and goods, and a wealth of scientific information, as well as myths and legends.
The best known of these was the story of Gilgamesh, a legendary ruler of Uruk, and his search for immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a huge work, the longest piece of literature in Akkadian (the language of Babylonia and Assyria). It was known across the ancient Near East, with versions also found at Hattusas (capital of the Hittites), Emar in Syria and Megiddo in the Levant.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest surviving poems we have and was probably composed in the 13th to 11th centuries BC. It tells the story of a semi-historical king, Gilgamesh, and his close friend, the hairy wild man Enkidu. This tablet, from more than 2,500 years ago, is part of it. It describes the meeting of Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim. Like Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by the gods to send a great flood. He built a boat and loaded it with all his precious possessions, his kith and kin, domesticated and wild animals and skilled craftsmen of every kind.
Utnapishtim survived the flood for six days while mankind was destroyed, before landing on a mountain called Nimush. He released a dove and a swallow but they did not find dry land to rest on, and returned. Finally a raven that he released did not return, showing that the waters must have receded.
This Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story was identified in 1872 by George Smith, an assistant in the British Museum. On reading the text he ‘jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.’ Poetry sometimes has that effect on people…
2. The Tale of Sinuhe
The Tale of Sinuhe is one of the most famous texts from ancient Egypt. Written in verse around 1850 BC by an unknown scribe, it details the exploits of Sinuhe who is exiled from his country, but returns and is reintegrated into Egyptian society. The name Sinuhe means ‘the son of the sycomore’, and the sycomore goddess features throughout the poem.
Professor Richard Parkinson from the University of Oxford, and formerly a curator at the Museum, worked with actress and writer Barbara Ewing to record a dramatic reading of one of the finest works of Egyptian poetry, The Tale of Sinuhe. The tale survives in many manuscripts, including one in a collection of texts now known as the Ramesseum papyri.
In this video, Richard and Barbara discuss working together and the impact the poem can still have on modern audiences.
3. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience
A poet, printmaker and painter, William Blake is perhaps best remembered today as the writer of Jerusalem, later set to music by Parry. Some of his best-known artistic work combines his poetry with beautiful illustrations and decoration. Although he was working at the same time as the Romantic painters and poets, his style remains unique and distinct from his contemporaries.
Blake’s work from the 1780s and 90s forms an important part of the Museum’s prints and drawings collection. This page is from his work Songs of Experience and contains his famous poem The Tyger:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
4. A painted scroll by Suzuki Shōnen
At 3.5 metres high, this painting by Japanese artist Suzuki Shōnen (1848–1918) is a towering composition, yet the brushwork remains refined.
Its subject is the contented solitude of the ageing artist himself as he wanders among the idealised mountains of his imagination. The poem at the top reinforces this feeling:
What sort of man is this holding a staff
Gently walking and considering a poem as he goes?
5. Homage to Mahmoud Darwish by Mona Saudi
Mona Saudi’s series of screenprints are inspired by the poetry of the well-known Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008). Saudi has positioned verses of Darwish’s poetry in conversation with her drawings. Darwish was an iconic figure and inspired many artists to create paintings and artists’ books.
The verses in this drawing are from That is her image and This is the suicide of the lover (extract translated by Atef Alshaer).
I wear you and take off the days,
There is no history before your hands,
There is no history after your hands,
They call you the alternative,
I do not have language, between myself and my name there is a country,
And I want to incarnate the trees,
I bear witness that I have covered my name with silence,
Near the sea…
6. Jade bi with a poem by a Chinese emperor
This jade disc is called a bi (pronounced ‘bee’). It was made sometime towards the end of the Neolithic period or the beginning of the Shang dynasty, around 2000–1500 BC. Its function is unknown but such rings have been found in tombs.
It would have been revered as a precious antiquity from an early time. Eventually it became part of the imperial art collection and came to the attention of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–1796) who was a very enthusiastic patron of the arts. He was well known for writing comments on his art objects, particularly his paintings and his jades.
This disc has one of his poems inscribed on it. In it the emperor says that the ring was a cup stand and that he had looked for the jade cup which he thought it originally housed. He could not find one so substituted it for a ceramic Ding ware bowl.
7. A Persian love poem on a tile
Tilework produced in Iran between the 12th and 14th centuries features strongly in the collections of the British Museum. Lustre-painted tiles, in particular, are amongst the most stunning pieces and represent both a high level of sophistication in craftsmanship and a diversity of subjects. Lustre-painted tiles adorned the interiors of both religious and secular buildings, and the subject matter could range from abstract or vegetal designs to depictions of animal or human figures. Inscriptions along the border could contain excerpts from the Qur’an, prayers, or literature, but text did not always necessarily correspond to the image in the centre of the tile. In this case, however, a close connection ties verses on love to the image of a couple:
Last night the moon came to your house.
Filled with envy, I thought of chasing him away.
Who is the moon to sit in the same place as you?
The Museum’s collection features other tiles probably produced in Kashan at the end of the 13th century, the inscriptions of which focus on themes such as romance and courtly life.
Tile in the shape of an eight-pointed star featuring a love poem in Persian. Probably Kashan, Iran, late 13th–early 14th century AD
Poetic licence: other poetry and poets at the Museum
1. The Greek poetess Sappho on a pot
In ancient Greece women were generally excluded from public life and politics, but they did take part in domestic and religious rituals. The poet Sappho (630–570 BC), who lived in Mytilene on the isle of Lesbos, gave a voice to women and female desire that has resonated throughout history. By the 19th century her poetry had made the word for an inhabitant of Lesbos a term for a woman who loves women – the original lesbian.
Classical art and literature celebrating same-sex relationships continued to provide inspiration for people living in later eras when homosexuality was criminalised. The brilliance of Sappho’s poetry and its expression of female love and desire continues to inspire readers.
2. For The Fallen by Laurence Binyon
Laurence Binyon came to work at the British Museum in the Department of Printed Books in 1893, but his first love was for prints and drawings. He transferred to that department in 1895, eventually becoming Keeper of the sub-department of Oriental Prints and Drawings in 1913. Binyon was also a published poet and in 1914, The Times carried one of his poems, For the Fallen, just seven weeks after the outbreak of the First World War. This poem soon became a focal point for public grief as the war developed and the casualties grew and would later be used on numerous tombstones and cenotaphs around the world, including the Museum’s War Memorial.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the floor of the Great Court
You may have literally stumbled across this if you’ve been in the Great Court.
It’s a quote from Alfred, Lord Tennyson inscribed into the floor! Like many other eminent Victorians, Tennyson had used the Museum’s Reading Room in the 19th century.
And let thy feet, millenniums hence, be set in midst of knowledge
This is a short extract from his poem The Two Voices, first published in 1842. It encapsulates an appropriate sentiment for the purpose of museums in general.
Homer is the name given by the ancient Greeks to the legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems which are the central works of ancient Greek literature. A marble portrait bust of Homer is on display in Room 22.
5. Some of the muses (the ones who were in charge of poetry)
The word museum comes from the Greek word μουσεῖον (mouseion). This was a place where the ancient Greeks worshipped the Muses, the nine mythological deities they believed were the source of all inspiration. The word ‘museum’ is a Latin version of ‘mouseion’ – that’s what we use in English today. So it’s perhaps no surprise that you can find the Muses in the British Museum!
Three of the Muses in particular were associated with poetry:
Erato was the Muse of lyric and love poetry, a type of verse that was accompanied by a musical instrument.
Calliope was the Muse of eloquence and epic poetry. Here, she is depicted with Virgil author of the famous Roman epic poem the Aeneid.
Polyhymnia is the Muse of sacred poetry and hymns.
But now the end is nigh for you,
You’ve read it all! Farewell, adieu.
With thanks to Frank Kevin Molloy.