Notes to Poem:
Michelangelo's Bow

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: On Thursday, May 19, 2011, I attended Professor Leonard Barkan's Lecture "Some Pages from Michelangelo's Life, with Reflections on Some Other Lives" at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center Auditorium (5:30-7:00 pm). Four photos were taken during Barkan's lecture. When Barkan showed the image of "David with his sling shot, and I with the bow, — Michelangelo", he said that we'll have to buy his book Michelangelo: A Life on Paper to find the meaning of the "bow". It may refer to a weapon shooting arrows, or the bow of a musical instrument, since King David was also a musician who played the harp. I spoke to Prof. Barkan afterwards and said the bow could refer to the crescent moon symbolized by the Moon goddess Diana (Artemis). According to the Mundaka Upanishad, the bow is Om that propels the soul's arrow to merge with the Spirit. However, Barkan didn't think that Michelangelo read the Hindu scriptures. Michelangelo had inspired an earlier poem "The Distance of Creation" (10-24-1992), and now, I feel another poem bubbling up in me. On June 27, I watched Rhapsody in Blue and Night and Day at the Stanford Theatre— two film biographies of creative composers George Gershwin and Cole Porter. My mind turned to Michelangelo's creative genius. While waiting for the 12:38 am Bus #22 at Palo Alto Cal-Train Depot, I walked around the station for 20 minutes and the poem "Michelangelo's Bow" flowed out. It was written during the 15-minutes ride to Mountain View. Notes compiled two days later.

Commentary on Poem "Michelangelo's Bow":

David with his sling shot,
and I with the bow—

Prof. Barkan noted that Michelangelo rarely signed any of his artworks. Yet in this drawing, Michelangeo signed his name in the three-line verse next to the arm sketch for his sculpture of David. Rhyming Michelangelo with arco (bow) brought to
mind T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917)—
  In the room the women come and go
  Talking of Michelangelo.
(Images: Photo from Barkan's lecture,; Michelangelo's drawing and poem,

Bow shooting arrows
or playing the harp—
weapon of war or peace?

William Dyce (1806-1864)
Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance (1844)
Prof. Barkan said the bow may be a weapon of war shooting arrows or the bow of a musical instrument. It's interesting King Joash (d. 800 BC) shooting arrows, was buried in the City of David (2 Kings 12.22). King David plays a Bow Harp that produces a sad sound whose music seems to linger. David cites the bow often in his Psalms (7.12, 11.2, 18.34, 44.6, 46.9, 58.7, 76.3), but he follows Psalms 46.9 "He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire" with Psalms 46.10: Be still, and know that I am God. (Images: Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance,; Postage stamp, Israel #399, issued 9-24-1969,
David playing harp
by Marc Chagall (1951)

Professor Barkan tells us
"If you wish to know
you'll have to buy my book."
In Michelangelo: A Life on Paper (Princeton University Press, 352 pages, $49.50), Prof. Leonard Barkan focuses on Michelangelo's "life on paper"— the hundreds of sheets that have survived containing drawings, poems, doodles, instructions to assistants and "notes to self". This book has 5 stars from three reviewers and 4 stars from another on Washington Post Book Review: "Barkan is a tentative but deeply learned interpreter. His close readings of these complex traces are marvels of erudition." New York Times: "Personable in tone, astute in observation, Mr. Barkan's book is that rare thing, a historical study as absorbing as a novel." NPR Interview. I have not read Barkan's book yet when writing this poem. (Image: Michelangelo: A Life on Paper book cover,

I tell him the bow
could be a crescent moon
in the hands of Diana

Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Diana (1893)
Crescent Moon is waxing (D-shape) when it grows between the New Moon and First Quarter. It is waning (C-shape) when it diminishes from Last Quarter and Dark Moon. A Crescent Moon appears as a "Bow in the sky". Diana (Greek: Artemis) was the Roman goddess of the Moon and the hunt. She was one of the three maiden goddesses, Diana, Minerva, Vesta, who swore never to marry. Along with her main attributes, Diana was an emblem of chastity. Oak groves were especially sacred to her. According to mythology, Diana was born with her twin brother Apollo on the island of Delos, daughter of Jupiter and Latona. (Images: Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,; Crescent Moon,
Crescent Moon like "Bow in the Sky"
with planet Venus to the left at night

Edmund Dulac's drawing
of Rubaiyat Quatrain I
or the Bowl of Night
filled with stars to make
our dreams come true
The night sky appears as a dome or bowl filled with stars. The 1940 song "When you wish upon a star / Your dreams come true" (lyrics) made many look up to the night stars to grant their wishes. The first quatrain of Edward Fitzgerald's translation (1859) of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam comes to mind after the Moon Goddess Diana who rules the Night gives way to her brother the Sun God Apollo, "Hunter of the East" who awakens the sky with his morning rays of sunlight:
  Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
  Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
  And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
  The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
(Images: Edmund Dulac's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Quatrain I,; Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with stars on cover,

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Houghton Mifflin (1884)

or a bow in the cloud—
a covenant between
heaven and earth
"Bow in the cloud" is the rainbow that appeared to Noah after the Flood when God made a covenant between heaven and earth that He will never destroy the earth again with a flood (Genesis 9.13-16): "I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth." (Image: Noah's Ark & Rainbow,

or the bow is Om—
symbol of Brahman
the Supreme Spirit
Om or Aum is a sacred mystical syllable in the Indian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The Mandukya Upanishad is entirely devoted to its explanation. Hindus believe that as creation began, the divine, all-encompassing consciousness took the form of the first and original vibration manifesting as sound "OM". The Mundaka Upanishad (II.2.4) links the bow with Om: "Om is the bow; the Atman is the arrow; Brahman is the mark. It is to be struck by an undisturbed mind. Then the Atman becomes one with Brahman, as the arrow with the target." (translated by Swami Nikhilananda, The Upanishads, Vol. 1, Harper & Brothers, NY, 1949, p. 290). Commentary: "As the bow is the cause of the arrow's entering into the target, so Om is the cause of the Atman's entering into Brahman. The Atman becomes purified through the constant repetition of Om, and then with the support of this mystic syllable is absorbed in Brahman." (Image: Om,
Note: I first read Juan Mascaró's translation of The Upanishads in 1968, and bought Swami Nikhilananda's 4-volume Upanishads translations at the Cornell Bookstore soon afterwards. It now occurs to me that Nikhilananda's interpretation of Atman appears dualistic and not in accord with Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) as taught by Ramana Maharshi and Paul Brunton. The Atman (individual spirit) need not enter into Brahman (cosmic spirit) by constant chanting of Om, because it is already Brahman, just as the wave (transitory form) is already water (eternal essence). I love the story of the Zen Master hitting the bullseye target in the dark, then splitting the first arrow's shaft with a second shot, saying "It shot! Let's bow to the Buddha." (Herrigal, Zen in the Art of Archery)

that flows through us
when we are inspired
to create something new
Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel Ceiling between 1508-1512. The nine panels depict scenes in Genesis from "Drunkedness of Noah" to "God Separating Light from Darkness" on the first day of creation (Genesis I.3-5): "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day." Although in Genesis chronology, "Separation of Light from Darkness" is the first of nine panels, it was the last one painted by Michelangelo. It was reported that Michelangelo painted this fresco in a single working day of eight hours. Vasari wrote: "Michelangelo depicted God... alone with open arms with the demonstration of love and creative energy." When artists are inspired, it seems the Great Spirit is doing the painting, composing music, and writing poems (Quotes, Poem) (Image: "God Separating Light from Darkness", Sistine Ceiling,

the way Michelangelo did
when his chisel carved
David to wakefulness.
Michelangelo created his sculpture David (1501-1504) from Carrara marble four years before painting the Sistine Ceiling. The 17-foot statue shows the Biblical hero David with a slingshot over his shoulder as he faces Goliath in battle (I Samuel 17.49-51): "And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine [Goliath] in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth." Vasari listed every ancient colossal statue he had ever seen, and concluded that Michelangelo's David excelled "all ancient and modern statues, whether Greek or Latin, that have ever existed." Michelangelo writes: "In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it." In his verse, Michelangelo compares himself to David in his oncoming battle with Goliath. Just as David's weapon was his slingshot, Michelangelo's bow is his chisel and the Goliath he faces is that damaged slab of huge marble which other sculptors would not touch. But with his courage and skill, Michelangelo would free a beautiful David imprisoned in that block and bring the ancient Biblical hero to life. (Image: Michelangelo's David,

                                                                                                Peter Y. Chou
                                                                                                Mountain View, 6-29-2011

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