One of my unfulfilled childhood dreams was to become an archeologist, so a favorite pastime of mine is to look for fragments of pottery, cobblestones, marbles and other curiosities from centuries past in my neighborhood, Northern Liberties. Since this section of Philadelphia has been occupied for over 250 years, privies and dumps are frequently exposed in vacant lots by erosion and new construction sites. One type of pottery that I frequently unearth is blue and white Chinese transfer-ware. Based on the quantity that I have found, it must have been in common use here in the early 19th century. A particular fragment that I relish finding is the willow pattern that illustrates a tragic love story expressed with many variations. The willow pattern tells the tale of forbidden love. A man and woman of different social classes prohibited from marriage elope to a distant island. The angry father-in- law finds them and puts them to death. The following poem that is based on this pattern is posted on Wikipedia:
Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging over.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.
In this fragment, the souls of the star-crossed lovers are united after death ascending into the sky as a pair of doves. Also visible is a part of the Chinese temple, the apple and the willow tree.
I think about this willow pattern plate illustrating a romantic tale of love and transformation on which my former neighbors dined. One day the plate was somehow broken and tossed into the privy with beer bottles and oyster shells, brought to light centuries later to enter this collection of public art.