Hafiz of Shiraz: Thirty Poems: An Introduction to the Sufi Master
Translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs
Publisher: New York: Handsel Books, 2003.
Hafiz, a fourteenth century Sufi, is considered by many to be the greatest Persian lyric poet who ever lived. But finding accessible translations of Hafiz’s poetry can be challenging. His poetry is layered with imagery and symbolism from the medieval Persian and Islamic culture in which he lived. Allusions which would have been familiar to every reader in Hafiz’s own time can be baffling to the modern reader.
Peter Avery, an eminent Persian scholar and Fellow at Cambridge University, and John Heath-Stubbs, a renowned British poet, combine their talents to bring us a delightful yet accessible collection of Hafiz’s poems in Hafiz of Shiraz: Thirty Poems: An Introduction to the Sufi Master. The translators work hard to place the poems in the context of their times, including notes for each poem explaining cultural references and a 22-page introduction describing the social and political setting in Shiraz during the poet’s lifetime. Their style avoids the overly ornate, Victorian language common to many earlier translators.
Hafiz’s poems take the form of the ghazal, reminiscent of the sonnet. An example is Hafiz’s famous poem urging the seeker to soak his prayer-mat in wine:
Boy, bring the cup, and circulate the wine;
How easy at first love seemed, but now the snags begin.
How many hearts lie bleeding, waiting for the wind-loosed musk
Out of these tresses – the bright twist of black curls?
For what security have we here in this halting place,
Where every moment the bell clangs, ‘Strap up your packs’?
Stain your prayer-mat with wine if the Master tells you:
That seasoned voyager knows the ways of the road.
But travelling light, what can these land-lubbers know of it –
Black night, our fear of the waves, and the horrible whirlpool?
My self-willed love will sink my reputation:
The truth leaks out; they make a ballad of it at their meetings.
If you seek his presence, Hafiz, do not let him alone:
And when you meet his face, you can tell the world to go hang.
The translators’ notes explain that the “black tresses” in the third and fourth lines of the poem refer to the brilliant darkness within, from which the spiritual fragrance of the Beloved, the “musk” emanates.
In another ghazal Hafiz compares the soul to the falcon of a king or sultan. The falcon has lost its way and made its nest in a bad part of town. From the king’s castle, it is being called home.
O royal keen-eyed falcon, whose perch is on the Tree of Life,
Why is this corner of affliction’s town your nest?
They are whistling you home from the battlements of the Empyrean:
What could you be doing here in this place of snares?
As a warning to the reader to place no faith or reliance on the world, Hafiz alludes to a story about Jesus, whom Muslims revere as a prophet. In this story, Jesus has an encounter with “the world” which has taken the form of an old woman. He asks this old woman how many husbands she has had, and she answers that she has had countless husbands and she has brought to ruin and killed every one. Hafiz warns,
Don’t look to hold this tottering world to her bond:
She is the withered hag of a thousand bridegrooms.
Hafiz says that when we think of ourselves as mere physical beings, we place too low a value on ourselves. Do we know what we are?
Are you less than a speck of dust? Rate yourself higher:
Be a lover, and make the riding sun your conquest.
Hafiz calls the soul “Joseph”, the youngest son of Jacob in the Qur`an and the Bible, who is always described as a paragon of spiritual purity, beautiful and luminous as the moon.
But as for you, you are Joseph, you are the Moon of Caanan:
The stewardship of Egypt is yours; so bid this prison good-bye.
Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, then thrown into prison. Yet, with loving reliance on God’s grace, he gained not only freedom but the stewardship of Egypt itself.
For us to break out of this world’s prison, we have to see through its illusion. Therefore, Hafiz counsels, “Drink wine!” – a metaphor to losing ourselves in spiritual ecstasy through mystical practice.
Drink wine, for he who has seen how the world’s business ends
Breaks through the turmoil unscathed,
and lays hold on the cup for his prize.
Wine is a particularly potent symbol of mystical experience for Muslim mystics. The drinking of wine is strictly prohibited by Islamic law. Using wine to symbolize divine intoxication, therefore, emphasizes the gulf between the external rituals that are the domain of the clerics and the internal experience that is the domain of the mystics. In fact, Hafiz’s “stain your prayer-mat in wine” verse landed him in accusations of heresy, and he was called before the sultan to explain his meaning.
But, Hafiz says, love cannot be judged by reason:
Bring wine, don’t scare us with reason’s prohibition:
That magistrate has no jurisdiction here.
Love is unfathomable, like an infinite ocean. We can’t approach love with measured steps or with caution. There is really no choice but to lose ourselves in its sea.
Knowing love’s ocean is a shoreless sea,
What help is there? – abandon life, and founder.
Losing ourselves in love has only one purpose, and only one hope:
I have tumbled like a fish into the ocean of love,
That he might come with a hook to haul me out.
There are many popular editions of Hafiz’s poetry in English. Some best-selling versions are renderings broadly inspired by translations from Hafiz but lacking citations to specific poems. Readers who have enjoyed such modernized versions may find that Avery and Heath-Stubbs’s translations add depth to their appreciation of this great Sufi poet.
Avery and Heath-Stubbs title this small volume “an introduction to the Sufi master.” Those who enjoy it may also want to read their larger work The Collected Lyrics of Hafiz of Shiraz (Cambridge, UK: Archetype, 2007; ISBN 1-901383-09-1).
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.