For in Persia every other man wrote verses, and kings honored poets only next to mistresses, calligraphers, and generals. In Hafiz’s time a score of Persian poets won renown from the Mediterranean to the Ganges and from Yemen to Samarkand. All of them, however, bowed to Shamsu’d-Din Muhammad Hafiz, and assured him that he had surpassed the melodius Sa’di himself. He agreed with this estimate, and addressed himself reverently:
I have never seen any poetry sweeter than thine, O Hafiz,
I swear it by that Koran which thou keepest in thy bosom.6
Hafiz means rememberer; it was a title given to anyone who, like our poet, had memorized the whole Koran. Born at Shiraz at a date and of ancestry unknown, he soon fell into verse. His first patron was Abu Ishaq, who had been appointed shah of Fars (southeastern Persia) by Ghazan Khan. Abu Ishaq so loved poetry that he neglected government. When warned that hostile forces were preparing to attack his capital, Shiraz, he remarked what a fool a man must be to waste so fair a spring on war. An insensitive general, Ibn-Muzaffar, captured Shiraz, killed Abu Ishaq (1352), forbade the drinking of wine, and closed every tavern in the town. Hafiz wrote a mournful elegy:
Though wine gives delight, and the wind distills the perfume of the rose,
Drink not the wine to the strains of the harp, for the constable is alert.
Hide the goblet in the sleeve of the patchwork cloak,
For the time, like the eye of the decanter, pours forth blood.
Wash the wine stain from your dervish cloak with tears,
For it is the season of piety, and the time of abstinence.7
Muzaffar’s successor, finding prohibition impracticable, or having discovered that wine-bibbers can be more easily ruled than puritans, reopened the taverns, and Hafiz gave him immortality.
He followed Persian conventions in spending so many verses on wine; at times he reckoned a glass of wine as “worth more than a virgin’s kiss.”8 But even the grape grows dry after a thousand couplets, and soon Hafiz found love, virginal or practiced, indispensable to poetry:
Knowest thou what fortune is? ‘Tis beauty’s sight obtaining;
’Tis asking in her lane for alms, and royal pomp disdaining.9
No freedom now seemed so sweet as love’s slavery.
Our stay is brief, but since we may attain
The glory that is love, do not disdain
To hearken to the pleadings of the heart;
Beyond the mind life’s secret will remain.
Leave then your work and kiss your dear one now,
With this rich counsel I the world endow;
When spring buds lure, the wind deserts his mill
And gently glides to kiss the leafy bough....
Belle of Shiraz, grant me but love’s demand,
And for your mole—that clinging grain of sand
Upon a cheek of pearl—Hafiz would give
All of Bokhara, all of Samarkand.....
If I with Fate but once might throw the dice,
I’d try a throw, no matter what the price,
To have my breath, O Love, be one with yours;
What need would I have then for paradise? ...
He who of gold and silk your tresses spun,
Who made the red rose and the white rose one,
And gave your cheek to them for honeymoon—
Can He not patience give to me, His son?10
He seems at last to have cooled into marriage; if we interpret his subtle verses rightly, he found a wife, and had several children, before he could quite make up his mind between woman and wine. In some verses he seems to mourn her death:
My lady, that did change this house of mine
Into a heaven when that she dwelt therein,
From head to foot an angel’s grace divine
Enwrapped her; pure she was, spotless of sin;
Fair as the moon her countenance, and wise;
Lords of the kind and tender glance, her eyes
With an abounding loveliness did shine.
Then said my heart: Here will I take my rest!
This city breathes her love in every part.
But to a distant bourne was she addressed,
Alas! he knew it not, alas, poor heart!
The influence of some cold malignant star
Has loosed my hand that held her; lone and far
She journeyeth that lay upon my breast.11
In any case he became domesticated, cultivated a quiet privacy, and seldom stirred abroad; he would, he said, let his poems travel for him. He was invited to many a royal court, and was moved for a moment to accept Sultan Ahmad’s offer of a home in the royal palace at Baghdad.12 But his love for Shiraz kept him prisoner; he doubted if paradise itself had streams as lovely, or roses as red. He indited a laud, now and then, to the Persian kinglets of his time, in hopes of a gift to ease his poverty; for there were no publishersin Persia to launch one’s ink upon public seas, and art had to wait, hat in hand, in the antechambers of nobles or kings. Once, indeed, Hafiz almost went abroad: an Indian shah sent him not only an invitation but money for the trip; he set out, and reached Hormuz on the Persian Gulf; he was about to board a ship when a tempest upset his imagination and enamored him of stability. He returned to Shiraz, and sent the shah a poem in lieu of himself.
The divan or collected poetry of Hafiz contains 693 poems. Most are odes, some are quatrains, some are unintelligible fragments. They are more difficult than Dante to translate, for they jingle with multiple rhymes which in English would make doggerel, and they teem with recondite allusions that tickled the wits of the time but now lie heavy on the wings of song. Often he can be better rendered in prose:
The night was about to fade when, drawn by the perfume of the roses, I went down into the garden to seek, like the nightingale, balm for my fever. In the shadow there gleamed a rose, a rose red as a veiled lamp, and I gazed upon its countenance.....
The rose is lovely only because the face of my beloved is lovely.... What were the fragrance of the greensward and the breeze that blows in the garden were it not for the cheek of my beloved, which is like a tulip? ...
In the darkness of the night I sought to unloose my heart from the bonds of thy tresses, but I felt the touch of thy cheek, and drank of thy lips. I pressed thee to my breast, and thy hair enveloped me like a flame. I pressed my lips to thine, and yielded up my heart and soul to thee as in ransom.13
Hafiz was one of those blessed and harassed souls who, through art, poetry, imitation, and half-unconscious desire, have become so sensitive to beauty that they wish to worship—with eyes and speech and fingertips—every fair form in stone or paint or flesh or flower, and suffer in stifled silence as beauty passes by; but who find, in each day’s fresh revelation of loveliness or grace, some forgiveness for the brevity of beauty and the sovereignty of death. So Hafiz mingled blasphemies with his adoration, and fell into angry heresies even while praising the Eternal One as the source from which all earthly beauty flows.
Many have sought to make him respectable by interpreting his wine as Spiritual Ecstasy, his taverns as monasteries, his flames as the Divine Fire. It is true that he became a Sufi and a sheik, assumed the dervish robe, and wrote poems of misty mysticism; but his real gods were wine, woman, and song. A movement was begun to try him for unbelief, but he escaped by pleading that the heretical verses were meant to express the views of a Christian, not his own. And yet he wrote:
O zealot! think not that you are sheltered from the sin of pride, For the difference between the mosque and the infidel church is but vanity,14
where infidel, of course, means Christian. Sometimes it seemed to Hafiz that God was but a figment of man’s hope:
And He who draws us in these flashing days,
Whom we adore, though we know whom He slays,
He well may sorrow, for when we are gone,
He too will vanish in that selfsame blaze.15
When he died his orthodoxy was so doubtful, and his hedonism so voluminous, that some objected to giving him a religious funeral; but his friends saved the day by allegorizing his poetry. A later generation enshrined his bones in a garden—the Hafiziyya—flaming with the roses of Shiraz, and the poet’s prediction was fulfilled—that his grave would become “a place of pilgrimage for the freedom-lovers of all the world.” On the alabaster tombstone was engraved one of the master’s poems, profoundly religious at last:
Where are the tidings of union? that I may arise—
Forth from the dust I will rise up to welcome thee!
My soul, like a homing bird, yearning for paradise,
Shall arise and soar, from the snares of the world set free.
When the voice of thy love shall call me to be thy slave,
I shall rise to a greater far than the mastery
Of life and the living, time and the mortal span.
Pour down, O Lord! from the clouds of thy guiding grace,
The rain of a mercy that quickeneth on my grave,
Before, like dust that the wind bears from place to place,
I arise and flee beyond the knowledge of man.
When to my grave thou turnest thy blessed feet,
Wine and the lute thou shalt bring in thine hand to me;
Thy voice shall ring through the folds of my winding-sheet,
And I will arise and dance to thy minstrelsy.
Though I be old, clasp me one night to thy breast,
And I, when the dawn shall come to awaken me,
With the flush of youth on my cheek from thy bosom will rise.
Rise up! let mine eyes delight in thy stately grace!
Thou art the goal to which all men’s endeavor has pressed,
And thou the idol of Hafiz’s worship; thy face
From the world and life shall bid him come forth and arise! 16