Vessels of Tears

Clare Whistler is Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions during 2013-14. Her artistic practice explores elemental forces through collaboration with both people and places. An opera singer, dancer, choreographer and community organiser, Clare strives, in her work, to make visible the subtle connections between disciplines and art forms.

On 7 May 2014 Clare curated a special event entitled ‘Vessels of Tears’ at Queen Mary, bringing together the many elements of her residency, exploring weather, tears, and waterways through music, film, poetry, photography, dance, text, and history. You can download the programme for the evening here. This blog post contains some of the thoughts and poetry she shared on that occasion, including some of the ‘Tear Bottle’ poems created from interviews with researchers at Queen Mary, which also feature in one of Natalie Steed’s podcasts for the project.


Tear bottles are also known as tear vials, tear catchers, lachrymatories, or unguentaria, and were common in the first centuries AD. They are small tear-shaped bottles were placed as tributes beside tombs, sometimes believed to have held the tears of the mourners.

This first poem is taken from an interview with Dr Paul Roberts in the Roman and Greek Department of the British Museum.


glass blown glass

colossal potteries made tiny bottles
spindle necked, ovoid bodied, long footed
for perfume to anoint the dead
they were buried with their contents
flattening into triangular shapes
though always a long neck
an elongated tear
and a tear

it’s possible
no one can say no

bottles were also bird shaped
break beak or tail to open
shells, shoes, snails
and little boats
even dates in amber
and the heads of gods and men

glass unguentarium
aqua green and yellow
stoppered with cork or wax
the perfume inside expensive
refined not distilled
thousands in a store room

this is  the first century
Bay of Naples
for roses, lilies, violets
from Eygypt and the east
bergamot, cinnamon, cloves
perfumiers  are named on Pompeii’s wall

first find
in an abandoned room
painfully thin and broken
so easily smashed
the wall of the vase
less than a millimetre through
beautiful blue glass
in fragments
grave goods


For my Tear Bottle project I have interviewed many academics and staff at Queen Mary about their own tears. I then asked them to imagine a receptacle for their tears with these as possibilities: gold or gossamer, dew or music, a kiss or a colour, velvet or cold rain, leaves or books, skin or sea, laughter or food, childhood or…anything at all.

These ‘Found Poems’ have been formed purely from words spoken by the participants.

tear bottle 12

my tear bottle is memory
to keep the memory alive within you

it doesn’t have boundaries
or only half-imagined

like a blanket
with a few dark spots

a night sky
but laid out

within and inside

to hold on to something
in your memory

in the way only certain bits
come to light

tear bottle 7

to be made of music
and capture
the abstract and mysterious

to be made of music
and capture
music emotions

to be made of music
and capture
reliable music tears


leaves,branches, blossom
spring leaves
spring branches
spring blossom

like a young child
temporary and Elgar

blossom and branches
white, pink and red
Kentish blossom
white, pink and red

tear bottle 4

I would not like a tear bottle
you shed your tears, get wet

don’t carry your tears
or they go under your skin

feel the tears of pain and joy
it is difficult not to be touched

it is tragic to lose the ability to cry
for survival you need to shed tears

feel the wetness
of what changes when you cry

you are not losing the memory
you come to terms with certain things

tear bottle 10

did anyone else say glass
thin glass
like the stamen of a flower
an amphora teardrop

slightly blue
it can’t be held
the merest knock and it would break
resiliently vulnerable

the tears are everyone’s
shared stories shared tears
to help each other through the suffering

no stopper or lid
it’s always open

tear bottle 11

( maybe if I cry enough I’ll be empty )

I want a dark
metal repository

made of dark
unfinished pottery

to hide in the dark
where I can’t see them

I want a recyclable repository
for everyday weeping
glass recyclable
test tube recyclable
wouldn’t keep them
they’re recyclable

a pure gold repository
for precious tears

pure gold and clear
chemistry bottle shaped

pure gold tears
for new kids being born

really pure gold
a way to keep and display

to fill an ornate spice rack cabinet
with decorated shelves in beautiful wood

arranged chronologically
I will need more and more

pure gold tears

As part of the Tear Bottle project I gave everyone a tear treasury, a small book filled with tissue paper in which to collect their own tears. There have been some adventures achieving that! It will become A Library of Tears for the Centre for the History of the Emotions.

 Read more about ‘Weather, tears, and waterways’.

Read about and listen to all of the related podcasts.