Monday, June 30, 2008

What do Ashurbanipal, Hadrian, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mao have in common?

Ashurbanipal was the ancient king in whose library was discovered the Epic of Gilagamesh. The king was literate, a rarity for the time, even for kings, who didn’t need to read, after all, they had scribes to do that. But as a literate man Ashurbanipal liked to have books around him and collected what was probably the greatest library of the age. Plus he wrote poems. You know he did!

In The Buried Book David Damrosch quotes a few lines attributed to Ashurbanipal:

Often I go up to the roof in order to plunge down,
but my life is too precious, it turns me back.
I would hearten myself, but what heart do I have to give?
I would make up my mind, but what mind do I have to make up?
O Nabu, where is your forgiveness,
O son of Bel, where is your guidance?

Unusual exposure of self-doubt & vulnerability for a king. Glorifying was more the order of the day in kingly lit. Even when it were self-glorifying.

Damrosch lines Ashurbanipal up with his peers: “Ashurbanipal’s poems can be compared to the verses of the Roman emperor Hadrian or, much later, England’s Queen Elizabeth I and China’s Chairman Mao, all of whom wrote some excellent stanzas and a larger output of lesser quality. All four leaders can best be described as talented amateurs, and more specifically as talented amateurs whose audience was not going to risk offering much in the way of constructive criticism.”

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