Missionary insights

I have just come back from a week away in Ledbury. Besides being a lovely part of the English countryside to explore, I was also there for the annual Ledbury Poetry Festival. It was a delight to have a week to indulge my passion for poetry. I really enjoyed attending some seminars concerning ‘bygone’ poets including Yeats, Larkin, and the mysterious disappearing Rosemary Tonks. I discoveried how they were cutting edge in their time and the influence they have had on the poetry scene subsequently.

I also took with me a book about Modernist poetry inspired by a conversation with Mario Petrucci a few months ago. Again, it was so interesting to learn more about how poetry has changed over the years and who were the key poets in the Modernist era. But as is so often the case – the more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn. That is definitely how I feel, not just about poetry, but also about my work here at the RAS. I have been trying to write a poem in response to one of the portraits hanging in the Council Room and also reflecting something of that feeling of knowing so little – particularly when I was new here. Finally as I was driving home from holiday, lines started slotting together and I made use of several lay-byes to makes some early drafts.

I think I am too inclined to be a storyteller to be much of a Modernist style of poet but this poem does show some influences, particularly around ideas of bringing in allusions rather than straight explanations and trying to make the reader have to do some work to understand the full story. So here is my current draft of the poem. See if you can guess who it is about (further clues below):


Inadequate   dunce
thumps browbeat drum
for in this hall of fame
names & faces
mean nothing
school-girl history ceased
at spinning jenny
when serving drinks to the in-the-know  
in a corner    a familiar face
makes the past crash
through    expect great things
attempt them too
cobbled words
for a shy child’s projects
and though she’s
scuffed     sole-holed
might still seed
hope     realisation

Some clues come from the parts of a quote “Expect great things… Attempt great things…” and in using ‘shoe’ terminology.

Further to that, I can add that I grew up in Kettering, Northamptonshire, in what had been the heartland of the shoe and leather industry, and still in my childhood was known for shoemaking. And Kettering was also the place where the  Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen was founded in 1792, later more commonly known as the Baptist Missionary Society.

So the familiar face that I saw in the ‘hall of fame’ in our lecture theatre was:

 This is William Carey – the first Baptist Missionary in Bengal and whose stirring sermon trying to motivate people to overseas mission included “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God”. The portrait hanging in the RAS is an engraving by W. Worthington, published in 1913, from a painting by R. Home. The portrait is titled “Professor Carey of the College of Fort William, Calcutta, attended by his Pundit”. Besides being an active missionary, Carey was also a considerable linguist, wanting to be able to preach and provide Scriptures in the languages of the people who he lived amongst. Within the RAS Collections we have several of his books.

This 1806 “A Grammar of the Sungskrit Language” was donated to the Society on November 5th, 1825 by the Baptist Missionary Society. We also have works about other languages including:

This is a 2nd edition of “A Dictionary of the Bengalee Language, Volume I”, printed in Serampore in 1825, presented to the RAS by the “Honorable East India Company” on the 1st December, 1852. And we are still collecting early Carey works. In 2014, our current President, Gordon Johnson, donated:

This is “A Dictionary of the Mahratta Language” published in 1810. These three books just begin to show the breadth of Carey’s knowledge. All of his books that we possess in the RAS Collections can be found on our online catalogue.