This book was a bit of a serendipitous find. I was in West Hampstead to meet friends and had arrived early, so I thought I’d pop into West End Lane Books. I wasn’t looking for anything particular, just enjoying a good browse, and I spotted this book on a shelf of beautiful books. Clearly, I don’t need more books right now, but this was poetry, in translation and beautiful, all of which are things I’d like to have more of! Not only is it well designed (like all Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions) but the pages have been roughly cut in an old-fashioned style – I can’t tell if this is deliberate or a binding error, but I like it either way!
However, that’s not enough for me to consider it truly serendipitous. On the train home, I was reading this book (not that I hadn’t brought any with me, but new book often trumps old, let’s face it) and the guy sat next to me asked if I was reading Persian, as he recognised the style of art used on the cover. He seemed to know a thing or two about Iran and we had a really nice conversation about the book, even reading a couple of the poems together and discussing the oddness of Hafez’s style. Which was rather lovely.
“O sorrow-stricken heart, your fortunes will revive,
Order will come to your distracted mind again
– do not despair
And if the heavens turn against us for two days
They turn, and will not stay forever in one place
– do not despair
Sweet singing bird, survive until the spring, and then
You’ll tread on grass again, deep in the flowers’ shade
– do not despair”
As for the book itself, there’s a chance it was more educational than a discovery of a new favourite poet, but I’m not averse to a little learning. Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani were mid-to-late 14th century court poets from the city of Shiraz in Persia (now Iran). Shiraz is near Persepolis and at that time was not especially important politically but was home to some of Persia’s most famous poets – despite the spread of Islam, which then as now discouraged the music and wine that tended to accompany court poets (indeed much of their verse would have been sung). Most of the 14th century rulers of Shiraz generously patronised artists, including poets, so it was a safe haven for them.
Hafez is the most famous of three poets featured. His work is still studied today and many an academic has tried to unravel the layers of meaning in his work. In his time he was famous and well respected. Jahan Malek Khatun was a princess of Shiraz – her father and later her uncle ruled the city. While not the only female poet whose work has survived, it is likely that she had an easier time of being a female poet because of her royalty. Obayd-e Zakani wrote much more satirical work than the other two, often political, and though he enjoyed fame in his lifetime, he also made great enemies.
“How long will Heaven’s heartless tyranny
Which keeps both rich and poor in agony
Go on? The dreadful happenings of these times
Have torn up by the roots Hope’s noble tree,
And in the garden of the world you’d say
They’ve stripped the leaves as far as one can see.”
—Jahan Malek Khatun
As you can tell from my ability to give you these summaries, Davis has written a good (extensive but not dull) introduction to the history and the poets, as well as the poetry. There are also end notes giving plenty of further analysis of the poems without interrupting the reading of the poems themselves.
I especially appreciated Davis’ notes on his translation, with explanations of the challenges (such as recreating the ancient styles of verse used), the things he was able to recreate in English and the things that are lost. I also enjoyed the appendix of three tongue-in-cheek poems Davis wrote about the difficulty of translating Hafez! I learned a lot, for instance that Persian pronouns do not distinguish between male and female, so most of the time it isn’t clear whether the subject of a poem is male or female. (From historical records and those poems that do make it clear – by referencing body parts, for example – we know that it was common for poets of the time to write admiringly of attractive youths of both genders.) It was also common (as with some western poets of a similar era) for references to a person to mean both a flesh-and-blood person and God, or to switch between the two.
“Here with our souls’ companions, bored to death
With hypocrites and all they claim they’ve done,
No pompous pride disturbs our minds, no thoughts
Of purity – no, not a single one!
We’ve drunk the poison of our indigence
And don’t want antidotes from anyone.”
And my reaction to the poetry? Some I loved, some was okay, some I disliked. Hafez was my favourite – I see why he is the most famous of these three by some way. I wanted to like Jahan Khatun more, as the one woman featured, but there was a single-notedness to her verse, mostly talking about unhappiness in love, though that’s not to say I disliked it. Obayd I liked politically but not his sexual stuff (which there’s quite a lot of). I’m not a prude, I just didn’t find the verses sensual or sexy at all, instead they were distasteful – this might be the translation but as Davis did such a good job elsewhere I tend to think it was the original that I disliked.
I’m really glad I followed my whim and picked up this book. I’ll certainly re-read the Hafez, and maybe if I give the others a chance I’ll get something more from them as well.
First published in the US in 2012 by Mage Publishers.
This edition published in the UK in 2013 by Penguin Books.
Source: West End Lane Books.