In the West we all know well the great Persian Sufi poet, Rumi, who lived in the 13th century. Rumi first became famous after he achieved an exalted state of mystical consciousness called Tawhid which means 'union with the Divine'. Once in this state he began whirling and uttering amazing lyrical poetry and stories telling about the travails of the spiritual path. Much of Rumi's words were adaptations of popular Sufi lore and were fairly easy to translate hence they spread throughout the world receiving a broader audience. The works of Rumi have been more recently popularized in English by the interpretive writer Coleman Barks, whose books have sold over a million copies. Rumi is by far the most popular of all Persian Sufi poets but he perhaps is not the greatest.
If you were to go into the home of any Iranian family the book you would most likely find on their mantle piece would be the Divan of Hafez. Hafez of Shiraz (died 1390) was also said to have achieved that highest state of Tawhid and used the same Persian Sufi poetic form that Rumi used, called a ghazal. One important difference between Rumi and Hafez is that the Divan is considered to be so complex and multi layered in meaning that translations have always fallen far short of the originals. It has been proven through the ages that it is very difficult to translate Hafez. The person who comes up with the first accurate English Hafez translation will go down in history as a master of word, mind, heart and soul.
To step into the world of a Hafez ghazal one must see things on multiple levels simultaneously. Hafez would weave couplet trails of mundane human longing, spiritual longing, and even 'secrets' on how to achieve union with God. Each single couplet would combine with others to form a greater narrative that completed an epic story about the struggles of existence and transcendence. These poems would be laced with satirical commentary on political hypocrisy along with comic asides regarding the nature of love and life. All this was bound with perfect meter and rhyming schemes that make Shakespeare's love sonnets look simplistic by comparison.
To add to the mystique of the Divan of Hafez, it has also been used as a type of divining tool for centuries. This practice is carried out by anybody seeking some higher guidance. If one had a problem or question they would close their eyes and open up the Divan to one of its poems and then study the words for answers to their query. To most Persians the Divan of Hafez is a book held second only to the Holy Koran. They commonly memorize each poem and even render them into arabesque songs. They spend their lives meditating on the deeper meanings and mysteries that the words embody. To this day the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz is the most popular holy place of pilgrimage within Iran. Hafez is held up as the greatest saint of all time.
Hafez' poetry went through some brutally bad and even embarrassing English translations during the Victorian age. Hafez was perceived as an obsessive drunken lecher because his rich tapestry of analogies, symbols and metaphors, crying out a never quinched intoxicated longing for the beloved, were completely misunderstood. Even with the challenges concerning exemplary heartfelt translations of Hafez, you can still enjoy some good honest attempts at bringing this unique master of Persian poetry to English by such notables as Henry Wiberforce-Clarke, Gertrude Bell and more recently Elizabeth T. Gray Jr., and Haleh Pourazal. Poet Daniel Ladinsky has produced some very accessible and much quoted haiku-like renderings of Hafez but they are more his own creation and should not be confused with the great master. Keep your eyes on the blogosphere, which has been coming alive with a new generation of Hafez aficionados from both East and West. Just google “Divan Hafez” and see what amazing worlds and words await you from the greatest of Persian Sufi poets.