Review: The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri

The Divine ComedyThe Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to enjoy this classic but perhaps that is what encouraged me to find fault with it. While some passages are absolutely outstanding, the vast majority of this work went straight past me, the Medieval references sometimes too obscure for me to figure out exactly why one person or another was speaking of what they were (and this was despite the preface describing all of this in detail; the references were too numerous to constantly check).

That said, I definitely want to give this one another try, perhaps after acquainting myself anew with some specific bits of HRE’s history.

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The Desolation of Chang’an, Wei Zhuang

Chang’an lies in mournful stillness: what does it now contain?
— Ruined markets and desolate streets, in which ears of wheat are sprouting.
Fuel-gatherers have hacked down every flowering plant in the Apricot Gardens,
Builders of barricades have destroyed the willows along the Imperial Canal.
All the gaily-coloured chariots with their ornamental wheels are scattered and gone.
Of the stately mansions with their vermilion gates less than half remain.
The Hanyuan Hall is the haunt of foxes and hares.
The approach to the Flower-calyx Belvedere is a mass of brambles and thorns.
All the pomp and magnificence of the older days are buried and passed away;
Only a dreary waste meets the eye; the old familiar objects are no more.
The Inner Treasury is burnt down, its tapestries and embroideries a heap of ashes;
All along the Street of Heaven one treads on the bones of the State officials.

This is from ‘The Silk Road‘ by Valerie Hansen to cap the chapter dealing with Chang’an, detailing the sacking of the old capital in 881 by the rebel armies. I found the poem incredibly evoking, mostly due to the very vivid description brought forward.

Retyping it I was also astounded by the note that it goes from a very specific point out to general and then focusses in again for the end note. It gives the sense that Wei Zhuang had a particular interest in the Inner Treasury and the Street of Heaven, and that their destruction is especially harrowing. Or, perhaps, as a conscientious poet, he noted that the destruction of the Street of Heaven was synonymous with the destruction of the Mandate of Heaven and the permission to govern?

The typical response to the above would be the classical statement:

An empire long divided, must unite. Long united, must divide.

Nevertheless, that the story of Chinese history can be summed up beautifully and poetically does not make it any easier to live through. And, yet, it was no doubt easier for Wei Zhuang to evoke sentiments by the destruction of glorious places, much like ‘Ruin’ did (and still does) for its Anglo-Saxon audience.

‘To One in Paradise’, E.A. Poe

And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy grey eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams.

These are the lines I saw in a recent blog post by John Howe, and they inspired me to look up Mr Poe’s original poem. I thought that I would like it based on that stanza, and I was quite right. The full poem by the author can be found here with Mr Howe’s blog post present here, for interests of full disclosure.

John Howe often posts interesting things, and his writings go about on great loops so I am seldom surprised by finding a lot of stuff in them that I would like to take a further look into. This time round he concentrated on an illustrator, Edmund Dulac, and that illustrator’s works on the poems of Mr Edgar Allen Poe.

I discovered quite a few things in that specific post. Firstly, Mr Poe’s writings extend beyond ‘The Raven’ and I am now planning to take a look into them in the not most distant future. Quite a few of his poems look good, and I maybe did not quite expect that. Secondly, illustrators probably live in a better world than ours. That is the feeling I often get when I look at what Mr Howe has drawn, and that feeling also accompanies me when I look at what Mr Dulac managed to draw based on the words of Mr Poe. Maybe they know the secrets to a more fulfilling life?

I’ll have the reader look at the blog post by John Howe to determine how much you like those illustrations, but I am quite fond of some of them.

But now, to the words present in this poem… they carry me away. And I know that was the feeling Mr Dulac wanted to convey in his images for it is exactly with what he has succeeded. I am unsure which one is greater — the poem by Mr Poe or the illustration based on that poem. They form a single unit, and that is most fitting in my mind.

‘The Dragon is Withered…’, J.R.R. Tolkien

There is a very nice poem (this sentence would probably be more accurate if I had said “There is another very nice poem…”) in ‘The Hobbit’ that I noticed on my recent read of the book. I took some time to look into whether Colin Rudd, Anois, or the Tolkien Ensemble had turned those words into music, but I’m afraid that does not seem to have happened (if I am mistaken, please do enlighten me). However, I discovered another promising singing voice who has sung the words into a tune.

Here it is:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fj_Grl0dc9o]

And here’s the lyrics to this poem (note that while you can find the full poem on that site, only the latter half was made into a song, and since that part is the one I like better it is also what I’ve copied here).

The dragon is withered,
His bones are now crumbled!
His armor is shivered,
His splendour is humbled!
Though sword shall be rusted
And throne and crown perish,
With strength that men trusted
And wealth that they cherish,
Here grass is still growing,
And leaves are yet swinging!
The white water is flowing,
And elves are yet singing!
Come! Tra-la-la-lally!
Come back to the valley!

The stars are far brighter
Than gems without measure,
The moon is far whiter
Than silver in treasure:
The fire is more shining
On hearth in the gloaming
Than gold won by mining,
So why go a-roaming?
O! Tra-la-la-lally!
Come back to the Valley!

O! Where are you going?
So late in returning?
The water is flowing!
The stars are all burning!
O! Whither so laden,
So sad and so dreary?
Here elf and elf-maiden
Now welcome the weary!
With tra-la-la-lally
Come back to the Valley,
Tra-la-la-lally
Fa-la-la-lally
Ha ha!

Mind you, in my mind the tone is slightly stronger with more force and power, but then again in the books it is sung by the good Elves of Rivendell so maybe my interpretation is less accurate than it could be.

But I think that no matter what tone we apply, these words can bring about a smile and make a day brighter… which is, after all, what a poem is meant to do. So, there we go… ‘The dragon is withered…!

‘Out of the Great Sea…’, J.R.R. Tolkien

Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.

For some reason, when watching Return of the King today, this quote struck me as very beautiful. These are the original words in Elvish (I couldn’t really remember whether it is Quenya or Sindarin although I would bet on Quenya):

Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn’ Ambar-metta!

For the context, if people familiar with the general Middle-Earth lore can use a reminder, it is supposedly what Elendil said when he landed in Middle Earth after the Downfall of Númenor; and these words were again uttered by Aragorn upon his coronation in Minas Tirith (which is where the Return of the King brings them in). In that movie version, they are sung to a beautiful tune by the character in a very mind-lifting way. I am sure that it is quite how Peter Jackson intended.

However, what strikes me there is not just the tune and the setting and the words, but the meaning that they can carry outside of that lore. Why, isn’t it the same as what’s meant by “Keep calm and carry on”?.. And yet, so much more eloquent!

‘The Prophet’, K. Gibran

… let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

‘The Prophet’ was the second book by Khalil Gibran that I have read, mostly due to the positive impression I got from ‘The Madman’. What made me enjoy this one was that the style was very similar to that in the previous book, and yet different — for now, instead of having less connected stories, we get a narrative where people are trying to learn from the prophet.

The prophet is a man who had been staying the city of Orphalese for a number of years and is now about to embark on his journey home. Before he leaves though, he passes on his thoughts to the people of this city, on topics from love to freedom to crime.

And they are thoughts most read-worthy.

If there is one thing I need to add, then where before I had a few doubts about going through Gibran’s writings then now there is no doubt — it is a firm plan to read other works by him.

But the restless say [of beauty], “We have heard her shouting among the mountains, and with her cries came the sounds of hoofs, and the beating of wings, and the roaring of lions.”

‘Short Song Style’, Cao Cao

I really enjoy this poem by Cao Cao. First that I saw it (literally, saw it) was in that great scene in Red Cliff where it is recited to a flame-enlightened dark night.

I lift my drink and sing a song
For who knows if life be short or long
Man’s life is but the morning dew
Past days many, future ones few
The melancholy my heart begets
Comes from cares I cannot forget
Who can unravel these woes of mine?
I know but one man… the God of Wine!
Disciples dressed in blue
My heart worries for you
You are the cause
of this song without pause
Across the bank a deer bleats
in the wilds where it eats
Honored guests I salute
Strike the harp! Play the flute!
Bright is the moon’s spark
Never ceasing, never dark
Thoughts of you from deep inside
Cannot settle, cannot subside
Stars around the moon are few
Southward the crows flew
Flying with no rest
Where shall they nest?
No mountain too steep
No ocean too deep
Sages rush when guests call
So at their feet…
The empire does fall!

Indeed, no ocean too deep!

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