The Poetry of Food – poems by Dan Simpson inspired by the ‘Food for Thought’ exhibition

These three poems were written in response to the Food for Thought exhibition, generously funded by the Roman Society and supported by the Corinium Museum. I’ve been writing poems based on British Roman history and artefacts as part of my work at the Roman Museum in Canterbury (, so was delighted to be asked to do the same at the Corinium. There are lots of approaches to creating this kind of work, but I am personally interested in the small and everyday objects – they really do link us to our past, and tell us something of the people we come from.

Dan reciting his poems at the launch of the 'Food for Thought' exhibition.

Dan reciting his poems at the launch of the ‘Food for Thought’ exhibition.

Dan with the 'Food for Thought' team at the exhibition event.

Dan with the ‘Food for Thought’ team at the exhibition event.

Eternal Dog of the Hunting Cup

I was struck by the sense of movement the potter had captured in the dog depicted on the hunting cup. I looked into how dogs had co-existed with humans for millennia, being one of the fundamental species that helped our survival. I got to thinking about Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and how he sees the love scene depicted on that object as immortalised. I wanted to do the same for the dog – and indeed, some of the lines in poem are directly adapted from the Keats’.

Dan musing about the Hunt Cups.

Dan musing about the Hunt Cups.

Ah happy, happy dog!

forever panting, and forever young

we can almost hear your barks of joy

the curl of your tail swinging back and forth

as the swift bounding of your legs

carries you eagerly over eternal ground.

You are not a nobleman’s hunting dog

all well-fed and well-bred muscle

sleek coat slipping through undergrowth

blood-scent in your sharp nose

keen-eyed and fleet-footed foe of deer and hare

nor are you some mongrel cur

snuffling through waste for scraps

a vagrant beast of burden

your ears and head drooping

your stomach growling more than your throat.

You are not a farmer’s black watchdog

eating with the family

as if you are one of them

standing silent guard in the household

alert for shadows moving in the night

nor are you a child’s over-indulged pet

fat from food fed from the table

lazily curling up next to your mistress

legs kicking as you dream of rabbits

fearful of other dogs not so well treated.

You are not the shepherd’s white dog

nipping at the legs of stray sheep

guardian and keeper of the flock

chasing away your wolf cousins

your lineage and history forgotten

nor are you a dog of war

half-starved and constantly beaten

made ferocious by the hands and whips of man

returned to your wild wolf origins

let slip to fight in the politics of conquest.

Caught in full flight made static by the potter

you have no name: you are every dog

man has ever loved and lived with

your barks echo back and forth down the ages

companionship resonating with the warmth of centuries

as timeless as the earth you are made from.

Prayer to Bacchus

The child’s drinking vessel is an interesting object as it’s adorned with vines and grapes – signs of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. This wouldn’t be something obvious to put on a child’s object! I wanted to imagine why this might have happened, and who would get their child such an object. I settled on a new father, who was perhaps regretting his overindulgence and wanted to make peace with the gods through a prayer.

Dan with the objects from the British Museum. You can see the baby feeder in the bottom left-hand corner of the case.

Dan with the objects from the British Museum. You can see the baby feeder in the bottom left-hand corner of the case.

Janus, hear my prayer

you, god of many faces and roles:

as Consevius you have created new life

blessed my marriage with a beginning

Janus, you have opened a portal in time

as my child sets out on his life’s journey –

hear my prayer.

Bacchus, see my child

you, god of the harvest and fertility

who have been kind to me already

now I ask more of you:

for though you are god of bliss and pleasure

you, god of wine, have another face –

that of bitterness and fury.

Do not let my son inherit the weakness of his father:

I am too often found sat, alone and in company

my wine cup constantly empty and full

with a serpent lying in wait coiled around my happiness

the poison ivy of cynicism creeping through my veins

my thyrsus in hand, wand turned to weapon

the raging bull of my anger ready to charge.

Bacchus, do not look on my son with this drunk darkness

but rather with smiles and red-faced delight

do not tempt my child to the ruin I have suffered

but rather to understand you as a fickle god

the pleasures of your madness and ecstasy as transient

wine as occasional and brilliant as music and dance

a fleeting beauty, not a permanent scar.

I honour you with this drinking vessel

adorned with vines and fig trees

your hopeful symbols of life and joy

given to my child so he may always remember you

I leave wine in this bowl in dedication of you

freshly-harvested corn for the eternal feast

accept my sacrifices, Bacchus.

Hear my prayer, Vesta

goddess of hearth and home

I seal my words with you

with the intensity of sacred fire:

may the future for my son

be not one of struggle and strife

but of harmony with Bacchus.

Corinium Cockerel

I knew I had to write a poem on the Corinium Cockerel – the artefact is truly beautiful, and its backstory is tragic and intriguing. It’s the kind of object you want to reach out to and hold with your hands, and I can imagine that being especially true for a child. As it was buried in a child’s grave, it must have been loved by them – and the child in turn loved by the family.

To see the cockerel and hear Dan’s poem, click here.

Dan absorbed by the cockerel.

Dan absorbed by the cockerel.

Go, cockerel: I send you away from my household

and into the next world with my child

she, who was so fond of you in life

demanding to hold and play with you

at every moment of the day

from her waking cry at first light

to her softly-breathing sleep at night.

In some ways you are alive

animated by the craft of the bronze-worker

his hands shaping the prideful curve of breast and wing

the definite fix of comb and wattle

the lively detail of eye and beak

but it was my child who – like some infant Pygmalion –

breathed life into you through her love.

And yet more than this – we all gave you spirit:

in the hollow of your back you hold memories

household stories of a mother’s love

everyday moments of a father’s affection

sounds of siblings’ teasing and laughter

the clash and clatter of an entire household

turning our villa inside out, trying to find you when lost.

The dark shade of night’s sky lightens to deep blue

after this profoundly long and severe night

and I remember that you are Mercury’s creature:

heralding the coming of the light with a cry of triumph

a message from the gods that a new day is here

that we mortals are not forgotten by the gods

hope rising as surely – and slowly – as the sun.

Speak for me now, you who may speak freely with Mercury

tell him of my child who can no longer see that light

nor feel the first touch of Sol’s warmth

put my anguish into your crowing

give voice to my grief where I can not

so that the gods may know

something of mortal suffering.

Tell Apollo that his medicine does not always work

and that Mors has eager teeth to take one so young

crow for her who can no longer cry

and charge Mercury to see her safe

in her passage to the afterlife

where I may see her again one day

holding you, cockerel, as I hold you now.

To find out more about Dan and his poetry, click here.

To hear Dan recite these poems, click here.

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