Dante and Han-shan: Masters of Visual Communication
University of Wisonsin-Stout
Journal of Student Research, Tenth Edition, 2011
by Diana Witcher
In his epic poem, La Divina Commedia, master poet Dante Alighieri employs striking imagery to portray an epic vision of the afterlife. The story is framed by Dante’s spiritual beliefs, the dogmatic theology of 12th century Christianity. Throughout the poem, the author depends upon the vivid description of each scene to express emotions that range from fear and isolation to wonder and awe of the spiritual world. The protagonist is placed within a series of visually striking scenarios as Dante uses dramatic imagery as a tool to persuade, guiding the reader along a path toward his grand vision of spirituality.
The Buddhist poet Han-shan utilizes similar visual imagery in his poetry. Like Dante he presents a literary painting, a description of a static moment that is meant to transform the reader. Han-shan’s poems describe a spirituality that places humankind in a fundamental relationship with the natural world. Like Dante, he explores the human emotions of loneliness, isolation, frustration, and the darker aspects of human nature. In Han-shan’s poetry, the author is an observer and critic but lives solidly within a natural environment that ultimately defines him. Each poet uses lyric language and visual imagery to describe his perception of the world. This perception is informed by spirituality and personal experience.
Dante uses color, light and detailed description of striking images to communicate complex visual ideas. It may have been a challenge for Dante to create images that would be appropriate to represent the divine. Natural images were associated with the earth, the body, and ultimately sin. “What shape can enlightenment take when any natural form prompts connection to the Fall?” (Domini, 2008, p. 271). His solution is to use light as a metaphor for divinity. He also models images after natural forms that are considered most beautiful and pure, for example a rose. Dante conceives of the nine spheres of heaven as a series of interlocking petals that join together at an apex.
So over the light and round and round did I
See mirrored on a thousand tiers all those
Of us permitted to return on high.
And if the least degree so greatly glows,
What measure shall suffice for the amplitude
Of the extremest petals of this Rose? (Alighieri, 1321, Par XXX 112-117).
Dante’s literal descriptions of the scenes in the Commedia are images that could be easily interpreted by a painter (Hinshelwood, 1965). This technique of precise visual description effectively communicates complex ideas. Not unlike a filmmaker or graphic artist, Dante uses visual metaphor to illustrate action through a series of still images, communicating states of mind through visual descriptions (Hinshelwood, 1965). Dante may even omit the description of actions altogether, instead relying on a single vivid picture to communicate the scene (Boyde, 1993, p. 72-73).
[Dante] sees the world with the eye of a painter… Indeed no quality of the Divina Commedia is more striking than Dante’s all-pervading preference for clear, concrete, luminous and colorful visual images, which arouse the feeling that he is not so much describing in the purely literary sense as laying down a specification for a painting… (Hinshelwood, 1965, p. 277)
Han-shan similarly uses a series of vibrant images to draw the reader into his poems. Like Dante, he articulates strong, intriguing images that paint a picture, a precise moment in time. “[Han-shan] often employs fresh, striking and dramatic images, which really stand out… normally found at the end of a poem where they make the strongest impression” (Henricks, 1990, p. 13). Han-shan’s poems convey an understanding that “in reality there is only one thing, the one mind. That one mind is in its true nature pure, undifferentiated, eternal, unchanging, forever enlightened-it is the true mind, it is Buddha-nature” (Henricks, 1990, p. 16).
When the moon shines, the water glints and sparkles;
When the wind blows the grasses rustle and sigh.
Snowflakes make blossoms for the bare plumb,
Clouds in place of leaves for the naked trees.
At a touch of rain, the whole mountain shimmers– (Han-shan, Watson, 1962, p. 63)
Han-shan’s verse affectionately describes the beauty of moonlight over water, a reverence for stillness and the profound beauty of his mountain home. His poems provide an accessible simplicity and perfection achieved through the spare patience of a man who looks deeply into the essence of the natural world.
Dante Alighieri and Han-shan were master poets that eloquently portrayed their individual experience. Analysis of their work reveals a similar technique of detailed visual description, which is intended to engage, inspire, and enlighten the reader. This technique is important to note as an effective tool for communication. While a picture may be more descriptive and telling than a written work, writers and poets can use precise descriptions of moments in time to communicate their spirituality or world view, and encourage contemplation.
Comparison of the poets’ work reveals disparate viewpoints, literary similarities, and a shared mastery of visual literary techniques. Dante painted a vision of his personal experience, a world that was dramatically divided and informed by his devout Christianity. His use of light and color was detailed and deliberate, revealing his passion and reverence for art and literature. His work is an epic testament to his understanding of virtue and a master rhetorician’s effort to integrate a political and social order into Christian theology.
Han-shan portrayed a simpler, more peaceful outlook that may not have been overtly religious in nature, but reflected many aspects of Zen Buddhism. His visual descriptions offer profound insight into the nature of the universe, and are a testament to the possibility that contentment is truly found in the present moment. His timeless vision of the world of Cold Mountain communicates both natural beauty and a gentle invitation to spiritual delight. Han-shan’s experience rests in stillness, while Dante’s drama, horror, and dynamic continue to impress each new generation of readers.