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.

The Sea…

O mar com fim será grego ou romano: O mar sem fim é português.
The sea without limits is Greek or Roman; the sea without limits is Portuguese.
— Fernando Pessoa

This quote was first brought to my attention by the wonderful history of Portuguese expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries into the Indian Ocean, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, which I recently read.

I find it such a powerful sense of showmanship: what is ours, is ours, and it will not be anyone else’s. Yet, this is an incredibly poetic statement at the same time. The original source is a poem (Padrão) which I am keen to read and understand, as it seems to display the penmanship of Pessao to a wonderful degree.

And, indeed, for a while this was very true. The Greeks knew their sea and its shores; the Romans likewise though theirs was immeasurably greater than the Hellenic expanse. Yet, the ways opened up by Diego Cão were nothing less or more than limitless for how the Portugal of the day may have looked at it (even if India was still a step away).

‘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:

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,
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!

‘The Secrets of the Self’, M. Iqbal

I managed to get through ‘The Secrets of the Self’, author sir Muhammad Iqbal (sometimes seemingly published in English as ‘Asrar-e-Khudi’ apparently, which should be the Arabic transliteration).

I began the poem with a very positive outlook on it, and I have to say that I finished it with an even better one. Reading it on my Kindle, I marked entire sections of it for future reference, for though it is a deeply religious poem (and I not the most religious person) it also publishes the truths upon which the world works.

Aside from the very notable quote that has become the citation for my blog(s), Iqbal had many other noteworthy sayings put into it (fortunately, the edition I read came with footnotes etc so the Islamic legendarium that I would have missed out on my own was a bit more open to me — naturally, I did not understand any of the allusions to the great work of Rumi, the Masnavi but the footnotes were there to help me through).

When the Self is made strong by Love, Its power rules the whole world.

Do note that this love is more understood as “the power of assimilative action avoiding forms of asking (inaction)” as the introduction to the poem describes it contrary to our usual comprehension of the term (which is rather randomized in most instances).  This is, however, by no means a definitive understanding of the term (and my reading of the Introduction was, well, less than perfect, let me say) and he did seem to employ it at times in both the sensual meaning as of man-woman as well as spiritual through man-god.

Some chapters (or rather, mmm… yes, let’s name them chapters) included interesting stories (there was one which I quite liked about a sage and a sheikh which brought the Ganges and the Himalayas into the discussion as well, and another on tigers… I was pretty much sold on everything before the tigers came along, but that was everything I needed to confirm that all my good beliefs about the poem were true 😉 ).

The tiger-tribe was exhausted by hard struggles, They had set their hearts on enjoyment of luxury. This soporific advice pleased them, In their stupidity they swallowed the charm of the sheep. He that used to make sheep his prey Now embraced a sheep’s religion. ‘flee tigers took kindly to a diet of fodder: At length their tigerish nature was broken. The fodder blunted their teeth, And put out the awful flashings of their eyes. By degrees courage ebbed from their breasts, The sheen departed from the mirror. That frenzy of uttermost exertion remained not, That craving after action dwelt in their hearts no more. They lost the power of ruling and the resolution to be independent, They lost reputation, prestige, and fortune. Their paws that were as iron became strengthless; Their souls died and their bodies became tombs.

He goes on for a short while longer, but this perfectly illustrates the downfall of the tigers. Unfortunately the formatting here is not as strong and suitable as it should be for a poem, but it should serve.

All in all, what the book says in many different ways is to look into oneself deep and thoroughly. The message should be even more relevant in the present day.

Inasmuch as the life of the universe Comes from the strength of the Self, Life is in proportion to this strength.

“Quoting sir Muhammad Iqbal”

The quote from sir Muhammad Iqbal that I have chosen as a “short description” (whatever that is supposed to mean) for my blogs is as follows (and naturally, you can see it in the upper right corner:

“When Life gathers strength from the Self, The river of Life expands into an ocean.”

The quote is more to my liking as time passes — it captures a truth, I would say. It has also made me determined to read the Asrar-i-Khudi (the book where this is from) as soon as I can.

How I even happened upon Iqbal? A character in a book that I read last year, ‘The White Tiger’ named Iqbal as one of the greatest Muslim poets of all time (truthfully, he named Iqbal as one of the three great ones with the others being Rumi and a third that he could not remember). I thought it worthwhile to confirm this recommendation and read both Rumi and Iqbal — this far, I’ve just managed to skim over a few pages of both, but they have seemed beautiful.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

A Moonlight…

 Oh, I wish this could be a common sight in the future. To wake up and see a clear-cast sky and birds flying; to listen to music that calms the spirit. It is such a perfect continuation from the yesterday I knew and the week before that.

Yesterday, I went for a walk. It was far colder than March should be (though it might be something similar than last march) but the Moon illuminated everything. Again a clear sky and a full moon, and the cold weather meant that there was a fog on the lake and the river. I kind of remember a similar day from years ago but then the grounds were covered in white snow and the trees were different. And yet, the Moon’s light was enough to see clearly what was going on — almost as bright as a day, I could say.

Likewise, I went for a first 3.2 km run yesterday. Might have been a bad idea, but I should at least be able to do it in a reasonable time. Yesterday, it was a bit short from reasonable…

As a less reasonable sidenote, it is worth to mention that I managed to intertwine two languages into one sentence so that no one understood what I was going on about ("Shall I go and fill up these ämber’s?"). 😛

Oh well, back to this wonderful morning. For it is wonderful.

And to yesterday…

The night deepends
and moonlight spreads
a coolness to the edges
of the pond, with fronds on
its surface and a frog’s voice.

To that person
wanting recall of events past
in this world below:
"Why not ask the moon above?"
may be the most fit response.

Both by Saigyo.

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