hafez hafizIntroduction

The great lyric poet of Iran is Hafez (c. 1320-1388), whose ghazals fuse multiple layers of meaning and are unlike anything in European literature. Little is known about the man, who lived quietly as a Koranic teacher in Shiraz. Like Dante, his inspiration was a woman of unapproachable beauty, but he married and survived local politics, religious censure and Tamberlane's invasion. After Arabic, Persian is the chief literary language of the medieval Islamic world, and its poetry is rich and varied as can be see by sampling these epics, romances, ghazals, and others.

Persian is now spoken throughout the world, and is possibly more easily learned than Arabic, at least sufficiently to appreciate some aspects of Iranian culture. Hafez's style is intensely felicitous and musical, but also simple, subtle and fluid, which makes for difficulty in translation and appreciation. Despite innumerable 19th century efforts, and excepting Omar Khayyam, classical Persian poetry has not been adequately translated into English, and the praised translations of Gertrude Bell will seem dated to many readers.

Ghazals are poems of 6 to 15 couplets linked by unity of subject and symbolism rather than by a logical sequence of ideas. Traditionally the ghazal had dealt with love and wine, motifs that, in their association with ecstasy and freedom from restraint, lent themselves naturally to the expression of Sufi ideas. Hafiz's achievement was to give these conventional subjects a freshness and subtlety that relieves his poetry of any tedious formalism.

Hafez may well have been a Sufi mystic, and many readers approach him for his philosophy. Some indeed make their own personal interpretation of Sufism, translating Hafez into contemporary equivalents. The results are not usually poetry, and certainly nothing like the original. Hafez's aim seems to have been to recreate the world in a web of symbols drawn with great aptness and ingenuity from Islamic culture. The poems are architectonic tours de force, each image being fitted into a pattern of linked figures of speech: an astonishingly refined integration of image with thought and musical expression. The closest parallels to western poetry may be with Symbolism (though Hafez has wider imagery) and with Postmodernism (though Hafez does make reference to sensed and inward realities).

Since Hafez cannot really be appreciated without a deep understanding of Islamic culture, start with general introductions to the history of period. For the literature, try as always the bibliography in the The New Princeton Encyclopedia section on Persian Poetry, E. Browne's A Literary History of Persia (1902-24: Indian reprints are affordable), A. Schimmel's A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry(1992: good bibliography), and J. Hadidi's De Sa'di Aragon (1999: French and Persian references).

Suggestion: A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry Wheeler M. Thackstone. Ibex Publishers. 1994. $25.00

Poems by Firdawsi, Farrukhi, Anvari, Khaqani, Nizami, Attar, Rumi, Sadi, Hafiz, Jami, Saib, and others in the original Persian. Metre, themes and other matters are fully explained, and a vocabulary gives nearly all the words. You will need some grammar — try A.K.S. Lambton's Persian Grammar — to get the most from this representative selection of a major literature, but the effort will be well rewarded.

Learning Persian

earning Persian

Though written with Arabic characters, Persian is an Indo-European language, and not overly difficult to learn. Commercial sites exist at: languagequest, , arthur lynn, multilingingual books, worldlanguage and languageresourceonline

The following provide useful information: easypersian, farrangsara and farsiabad.

Online Persian-English-Persian dictionaries are at kamous, and steingass

Steingass (Asian Educational Services, 2003) is the usually-recommended dictionary in book form, and you will need a decent grammar. E.H. Palmer's Simplified Grammar of Arabic, Persian and Hindustani (1890/2002) covers a lot of ground, but it's probably best to work systematically through A.K.S. Lambton's Persian Grammar (CUP, 1953): not enticing but solid.

Some useful language exchanges: friends abroad, xlingo, mylanguage exchange, polyglot learn language, and lingozone.

Persian Poetry

Persian poetry cannot be appreciated without a deep understanding of Islamic culture, and you may wish to start with general introduction to the history >of the area, which is fascinating enough.

For the critical literature generally, try as always the bibliography in the The New Princeton Encyclopedia section on Persian Poetry, E. Browne's A Literary History of Persia (1902-24: the Indian reprint is affordable), A. Schimmel's A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry(1992: good bibliography), and perhaps J.S. Meisami's Medieval Persian Court Poetry (1987) and Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry: Orient Pearls (2003: more a specialist's book, with references to recent scholarship), W. Thackston's A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry (1994), and the listings given on columbia .

Many sites sell books/CDs on Persian art and poetry, including: mazda, iranbooks, arabworldbooks, abebooks, and alibris.


Useful listings include hafizonlove, songsofhafiz and teachings of hafez.


Jami, the last great poet in classical Persian, was man of surpassing talents born into the flowering of culture under the Timurid rulers at Herat. Translations of Jami are of mixed quality, but can be found at oldpoetry.


Many translations can be found on the internet, some excellent: rumi.org, rumionfire and iransaga. Books on by Rumi exist in great profusion, marketed by bestirantravel, alibris, fetchbooks, abebooks, etc. There also exist many Rumi societies, promoting an awareness of the man's work and Sufi teachings: rumi.org, khamush, spiritdimension. Mystica Music has Rumi's verses translated into Hindi with a flute accompaniment.


For literary criticism see: Talatoff and Clinton's The Poetry of Nizami Ganjavi : Knowledge, Love, and Rhetoric (2001), A. Seyed-Gohrab's A Narration of Love (2003) and the listings given on columbia. Many translations exist, mostly as prose: Mirror of Meanings: jamali, chelkowski, Khosrow and Shirin: globoo, Laila and Majnoun: atkinson, turner, gelpke, Book of Alexander: volta, wilberforce clarke, rogers, and Seven Portraits: martin al-awadhi, richard wilson and meissami. Books in Persian occasionally appear on abebooks, sources listed on iranbooks are the best sources for Nezami himself.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.