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Antimony cup inside an inner leather box and an outer straw box, by The Antimony Cup Ltd, Peterborough, England, about 1720. Museum no. 1370A-1900

Antimony cup inside an inner leather box and an outer straw box, by The Antimony Cup Ltd, Peterborough, England, about 1720. Museum no. 1370A-1900

It is a poisoned chalice
that we raise –
but as we toast each other's healths,
    and chink
our fragile cups together,
  let us praise
the nation we're creating
   with this drink,
as we beget a finer race
 of men
and draft its customs with this
     alchemy –
eternal Friday nights
   of swirl and churn
of wine and air in this
  antimony.
We sink a cup to purge what makes us
   sick,
and sketch out shapes of Empire
    on the floor,
in splash on spreading splash of pink
    on brick
and blanket; wine and bile. Landlord,
   one more!
One final shot to get
 under our skin.
Sorry, gents, it's time.
                                     Better out than in.

About the author

Antony Dunn was born in 1973. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2000 and his latest collection Flying Fish was published by Carcanet in 2002. He works for the Riding Lights Theatre Company.

In 2002 Antony was one of five poets commissioned by the V&A and the Poetry Book Society to create new works inspired by the British Galleries 1500–1900. The poets were invited to come and explore the galleries at their leisure and select which object might take their fancy. The poems were performed in the stunning surroundings of the Norfolk House Music Room, a glittering 18th-century room in the V&A, in February 2002.

Antony's poem was inspired by an antimony cup, made in about 1720. Until the 19th century it was thought that illness could be caused by the build-up of bad 'humours' in the body. Purging, in the form of bleeding or induced vomiting, was believed to be useful for expelling them. Antimony is a toxic metal that causes vomiting, diarrhoea and breathing difficulties when touched or ingested. Cups like this were filled with wine which would then react with the antimony. Patients would drink small amounts of the liquid to induce vomiting. The cups were kept in protective boxes because of their value and their toxicity.

Download the poem (PDF file, 55 KB)

Watch Antony reading his poem in this video, recorded in the Norfolk Music Room in the V&A's British Galleries in 2002.

 

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