World Poetry Day is celebrated every year on 21 March to recognise the importance of poetry to human culture across the world.
At the Horniman we have been searching our collections for objects that will help us join the worldwide celebration and in this hunt have uncovered an object that shows how poetry and art unites us all across borders.
Horniman Object No. 2013.366 may not look like much at first glance. Wooden boards bound into a book by a leather spine does not make for the most eye-catching display, but open up the pages of this tome and you will be stunned. Each double-page spread features a unique poem written in both Chinese and English by an individual whose portrait has been lovingly painted as an accompaniment.
These poems were written to commemorate Reverend Robert Wilson, or ‘Mr Wei’, who had lived in what is now the city of Wuhan in Central China. Robert had passed away, leaving behind his wife and daughters. With the family set to return to England, it seems that friends and congregants of Mr Wilson had collaborated to produce this book to thank his widow for the impact he had on their lives, and to express the sadness that she too was leaving theirs.
We have highlighted three of these poems in particular that highlight how a group of ordinary people used the universal language of poetry to explore the sorrow and grief that they all shared.
Ah! How sad, the pastor is gone to heaven;
Having gone to the heavenly hall he has left
The world forever.
Alas! The mother teacher has to return solitary,
When I think of the miles of ocean and
Sea, my heart grows very sorrowful
- Liu Chang Sin
Oh how joyous! The mutual acquaintance between
The pastor Wei and myself was complete.
Oh how sorrowful! The teacher is gone to heaven,
And the teacher’s wife and daughters will
Now be separated from us.
Still my joy and my sorrow do not simply
Consist in this.
More sorrowful is it, that the harvest is great
And the Labourers few.
More joyous still is it, that there is a day when
The Teacher, with his wife and daughters
Together with ourselves shall meet each
Other in heaven.
- Shun Tsi Sin, the local evangelist
I am having my likeness taken,
And in presenting it to her who is about to return,
My object is to a small degree to soothe the sadness
Of the voyage,
And not because I regard it of any value.
Though visibly there is a temporary separation,
After death we shall be again near each other.
Say not that the distance will be great there;
In heaven we shall all be neighbours.
- Chii Hien Ohme