My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

McKennitt: Dante's Prayer

When I was in high school, I was that sensitive dork who quietly memorized poetry (but never ever told my friends about it). I never quite liked the stuff that we studied (usually because studying it took a glimmer off of it for me), but I always had a few poems I'd found here or there that I worked on being able to recite.

That's why one day when I was a senior, my parents were listening to some of their god-awful parent music (as parents are wont to do). I had that dawning sensation that somehow I knew the words of a song I'd never heard before. I still remember the exact moment I realized why I knew what I was hearing.
"The knights come riding two by two/She hath no loyal knight and true."
I recognized that! It was from a Tennyson poem called "The Lady of Shalott," and it was one I had worked at for months the year before to recite without making a mistake. (I never quite managed to do it perfectly.)

Even back then I had begun to realize that wanting to write was going to make my life sequestered, and I loved how she was this artist–a brilliant weaver–doomed to live a life where she could only really experience the world by watching it from a distance....through a mirror. It's a perfect metaphor for an artistic life. But this song set the whole thing to Celtic music and a haunting melody line that gave every other stanza of the Tennyson poem an almost hypnotic reedy repetition and then shattered them brilliantly during the alternate stanzas with full range and voice. And her smooth, liquid crystal voice could make a seraphim shed a tear.

That was my introduction to Lorena McKennitt.

In high school, it's apparently only cool to like one genre of music (and that genre will define you as a person) but I liked McKennitt on the down low when my friends and parents weren't looking. And as soon as I got out of high school, I started picking up her albums whenever I could.

If you want to find "The Lady of Shalott," it's not hard, but it's a 13 minute song, and not the one I want to share today. "Danté's Dream" is actually the McKennitt song I find most inspiring. I played it every morning for nearly five years. The transitions from piano to cello always struck me as one of the most beautiful musical effects I've ever heard.

One of the reasons I like this song so much is that it means so many different things to so many different people. Play it for ten people and you will have ten wildly different stories about who they think the speaker is. Some imagine lovers who have died speaking from beyond the grave. Some imagine themselves talking to such lovers. Some imagine that the speaker is about to kill themselves. Some imagine that the speaker has decided to keep living. Some imagine singing to exes. Some imagine exes singing to them. Some remember the one that got away. Some remember the one they let go. Some imagine God calling them back to faith. And some, like me, imagine a personification of some part of their lives.

I started to play this song a lot when I returned to writing in my late twenties. For eight years prior, I tried to live the life that society told me to live. I put on a tie and managed a restaurant. I made good money and worked long hours. I wrote, but only sporadically. And I grew cold and miserable. I filled my life with ambitions of middle management and better cars and DVD's and CD's and stuff, but it didn't help the way everyone said it would, and the way the whisper of culture promised it should.

When I got back into writing, I had to start completely over with a lot of the basics including morning writing, and this song kicked off my anthem of music each day. I always imagined that it was me imploring my muse (or whatever you want to call it) to return to me, and bring back the light of creativity to my life.

To this day, this song can help me when I'm having trouble getting started.

When I wrote I was happy, and when I did what society told me would make me happy, I was miserable. I tried to get that happiness back. But (as with all things) art did not make it so easy for me to just return; I had to quest to implore that light and fire to return to my life.

And after a lot of work, it did.

When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone

I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Then the mountain rose before me
By the deep well of desire
From the fountain of forgiveness
Beyond the ice and fire

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars

Breathe life into this feeble heart
Lift this mortal veil of fear
Take these crumbled hopes, etched with tears
We'll rise above these earthly cares

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Please remember me


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Jennifer I did NOT mean to remove this comment. I was using a track pad on a laptop and I touched it the wrong way right when the mouse was over delete. I am so sorry.

      I actually liked and agreed with your comment, and what I was trying to do was actually reply to it and say that it helps to know that I'm not alone in that feeling of being alone.

      If I find a way to restore your comment, I will try.

  2. I LOVE this song and made a holistic will for my mother in case I predecease her. One of the requests is that this song be played at my funeral. However you referred to the song as "Dante's Dream" at one point.

    All my favorite songs of hers come from this album, including The Mummer's Dance (though the single version is actually the best) and The Highwayman -- another amazing poem set to music.

  3. I've been following your blog and facebook page for a few months now, and I'm still catching up on some of the old (but gold) posts, like this one.
    I always thought that you've been fierce about writing since you started it, never faltering along the way. It's actually very comforting to know that you had a "normal life crisis", just like me.
    I had one through my first years of college. I gradually stopped writing and even reading for pleasure, until I realized I'd spent a whole year without doing either. Then it came to me why I was feeling so out of place in my own skin, so depressed, so meaningless. I got back on track, slowly, but I didn't have much time left between college and work, and just writing 3 or 4 times a month wasn't enough to feel the way I used to when I was writing up to 10 pages a day in high school. So I quit college (quitting work wasn't a good option, and I really didn't see myself as an architect after graduation) and tried to focus on jobs with flexible hours (I translate and teach a few English classes).
    Even though my financial situation is quite unstable, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be making much more money if I had graduated (Brazil's economy is shit right now), but at least I'm working with something I like and I have enough time to write to make me feel like I'm myself.
    And, to wrap this up, I'd like to thank you, because your blog is one of the only things that encourages me to keep on that track. Sometimes I feel guilty when I spend more hours writing than working for money on a given week, but your blog reminds me that that is the best use I could make of my free time, and it pays off in a way that more money or a prestigious career wouldn't.

  4. It's 'DANTE'S PRAYER'... I know it like the back of my hand. Played it over and over after my fiancee died....