Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Willow Pattern verse

Two birds flying high,
Little boat passing by,
Wooden bridge with willow o'er,
Three men passing, maybe four,
A little house with open door,
Apple tree with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

This verse is just one of many variations (see this highly unacademic site here at the for alternatives) which are nursery rhymes from the mid 19th century, that describe the Willow Pattern and were probably simplistic accompaniments to the slightly more adult legend – now believed to be a story invented to sell crockery.

It appears I haven't ever posted about the 'legend'. This is probably because I started the blog a year after I had done the legend to death and moved on to more sinister subjects such as British colonialism.

Recapping briefly, the earliest record of the 'Willow legend' is found in 1849 in The Family Friend, some 60 years after the pattern first became popular. No Chinese tale, song, play or oration has been uncovered that could be linked to the 1849 'legend', although there are some stories that come close. The legend arises at a time when the pattern was losing popularity. Some authorities say the nursery verses are based on an old Staffordshire folk song. Some are certain the elaborate love story told in the legend was invented by the management of the Caughley factory in 1790 (the origin of the pattern)...

The pattern has survived and remains largely unchanged throughout all the art movements of the 19th century, but obviously being part of the less lofty applied arts and commercial production, it has no place in 'art' history. It has continued to thrive as an object of mass appeal, and, accordingly, no snob would entertain it. The pattern has never been without detractors (Charles Dickens just one of many, see my post), but it has never been denigrated in verse...Longfellow, somewhat a populist and a lover of myth and legend, inevitably referred to it in a long paeon to the 'ceramic arts' (Keramos):

Nor less the courser household ware, –
The Willow pattern, that we knew
In childhood, with its bridge of blue
Leading to unknown thoroughfares:
The solitary man who stares
At the white river flowing through
Its arches, the fantastic trees
And wild perspective of the view:

Meanwhile, countless baby boomers have been told a version of the story by mothers or grandmothers...This version (Anon) has no particular literary merits and the tale "exhibits truly characteristic colonial elements of a somewhat smug Victorian view of old Cathay. Its citizens are 'little brown' men in a land where the wealthy live in compounds (in fact, the European experience in China in the 19th century)." (David Richard Quinter)

My Willowware plate has a story,
Pictorial, painted in blue,
From the land of the tea and the tea plant
And the little brown man with a queue.

Whatever the food you serve, daughter,
Romance enters into the feast,
If you only pay heed to the legend,
On the old chinaware plate from the East.

Koong Shee was a mandarin's daughter
And Chang was her lover, ah me!
For surely her father's accountant
Might never wed pretty Koong Shee.

So Chang was expelled from the compound,
The lovers' alliance to break,
And pretty Koong She was imprisoned
In a little blue house by the lake.

The doughty old mandarin reasoned
It was time his daughter should wed,
And the groom of his choosing should banish
That silly romance from her head.

For years had great artists been stitching
In symbols the dress she should wear,
Her headband of scarlet lay waiting,
She should ride in a gold wedding chair.

He was busily plotting and planning
When a message was brought him one day,
Young Chang had invaded the palace
And taken his sweetheart away.

They were over the bridge when he saw them,
They were passing the big willow tree,
And a boat at the edge of the water
Stood waiting for Change and Koong Shee.

The furious mandarin followed
The groom with revenge in his eyes,
But the little boat danced on the water
And travelled away with the prize.

But vengeance pursued to their shelter
And burned the pagoda, they say;
From out of the flames rose the lovers:
A pair of doves winging away.

They flew toward the western heaven,
The pretty Koong Shee and her Chang,
Or so says the famous old legend
From the land of the Yangtse Kiang.

I wouldn't be one to deny it,
For the little blue dove and her mate
Forever are flying together
Across my Willowware plate.

That's enuf poetry...

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