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Intro to Persian Poetry: Part Two

In part one of our introduction to Persian poetry, you were introduced to a form of poetry known as Qasida (قصيدة in Arabic) (قصیده in Persian). In this part two, we will discuss a form of poetry known as Ghazal.


A Ghazal can be best understood as a poetic expression of the pain of loss and also an expression of the beauty of love in spite of that pain. Ghazals consist of rhyming couplets and a refrain and each line in a Ghazal has the same meter. Ghazals were derived from Qasida and both terms come from the Arabic language and are borrowed into Persian (غزل). Ghazals spread into Asia in the 12th century through Sufi mystics and were written most popularly by Rumi and Hafez of Persia. It is very common for a Ghazal to feature the poet’s name in the last verse of the poem, this is a tradition known as maqta (مغتة). 

Ghazals and Sufism

It is nearly impossible to think of Ghazals without thinking also of Sufism as many of the most prolific Ghazal poets were Sufi themselves or were sympathetic with Sufi ideals. Most Ghazals are written in a religious context, with God being the beloved in a metaphorical sense. Most scholars today recognize that Ghazal couplets are exclusively about the divine love of God (عشق حقیقی) and others are about Earthly love (عشق مجازی) though many Ghazals can be interpreted in either context.

Ghazals often invoke  melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical questions. The Ghazal (meaning ode or lyric) is a comparatively short poem (compared to Qasidas), usually amorous or mystical and they generally vary from four to sixteen couplets, all on one rhyme. A convention of the ghazal is the introduction, in the last couplet, of the poet’s pen name (takhallus or تخلس).

Here is a video of a recitation of a very famous Persian Ghazal by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan called Nami danam chi manzil buud shab jai ki man budam (نامه دانم چی منزل بود شبجای که من بودم):


Personally, my favorite Ghazals are written by Hafez, the Shiraz-born Persian poet who is said to have written at least 500 Ghazals. Hafez never compiled his poetry, but it was compiled around 22 years after his death. To give you a small history of Hafez’s life and to explain the context for some of his poetry:

Hafez became a poet of the court of Abu Ishak and quickly gained fame and influence in Shiraz because of his work. Mobarez Mozaffar captured Shiraz, and among his various deeds, he ousted Hafez from his position of teacher of Koranic studies at the college and during this time Hafez began to write poems of protest. Once Shah Shja took Mobarez Mozaffar as a prisoner and ended his tyrannical rule, Hafez was re-appointed to his position as a teacher at the college and thus began a phase of subtle spirituality in his poetry. Hafez though quickly fell out of the favor of Shah Shja and he fled Shiraz in order to keep himself safe and began a self-imposed exile in Esfahan. During this time, his poems mainly talked of his longing for Shiraz, for Shakh-e Nabat, and for his spiritual Master, Attar. Hafez was longing to be united with his Creator and at the age of 60 Hafez began a forty day and night vigil by sitting in a circle that he had drawn himself. On the morning of the fortieth day of his vigil, he went to his Master and drank a cup of wine that Attar gave him. After drinking the wine, Hafez attained a cosmic consciousness or God-Realization. In this phase and up until his death, Hafez composed more than half of his Ghazals., and continued to teach his small circle of disciples. His poetry at this time, talks of the authority of a Master who is united with God. Until he died, Hafez averaged around ten Ghazals per year during this phase.

Since Hafez didn’t compile his poetry before his death, many of his Ghazals are simply numbered. Here is Ghazal One by Hafez:

الا یا ایها الـساقی ادر کاسا و ناولـها
که عشق آسان نمود اول ولی افتاد مشکل‌ها
بـه بوی نافه‌ای کاخر صبا زان طره بگـشاید
ز تاب جعد مشکینش چه خون افـتاد در دل‌ها
مرا در منزل جانان چه امـن عیش چون هر دم
جرس فریاد می‌دارد که بربندید مـحـمـل‌ها
بـه می سجاده رنگین کن گرت پیر مغان گوید
کـه سالک بی‌خبر نبود ز راه و رسم منزل‌ها
شـب تاریک و بیم موج و گردابی چنین هایل
کـجا دانـند حال ما سبکـباران ساحـل‌ها
همـه کارم ز خود کامی به بدنامی کشید آخر
نـهان کی ماند آن رازی کز او سازند محفل‌ها
حضوری گر همی‌خواهی از او غایب مشو حافظ
مـتی ما تلق من تهوی دع الدنیا و اهملـها


O beautiful wine-bearer, bring forth the cup and put it to my lips
Path of love seemed easy at first, what came was many hardships.
With its perfume, the morning breeze unlocks those beautiful locks
The curl of those dark ringlets, many hearts to shreds strips.
In the house of my Beloved, how can I enjoy the feast
Since the church bells call the call that for pilgrimage equips.
With wine color your robe, one of the old Magi’s best tips
Trust in this traveler’s tips, who knows of many paths and trips.
The dark midnight, fearful waves, and the tempestuous whirlpool
How can he know of our state, while ports house his unladen ships.
I followed my own path of love, and now I am in bad repute
How can a secret remain veiled, if from every tongue it drips?
If His presence you seek, Hafiz, then why yourself eclipse?
Stick to the One you know, let go of imaginary trips.

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