The Divan of Hafiz is one of the glories of Persian literature in its golden age and a classic of Eastern literature. Hafiz was the pen name of Shams al-Din Muhammed, a Persian who, early in his life, turned to the serious study of philosophy, poetry, and theology. The pen name he adopted means “a man who remembers,” a title normally bestowed upon persons who commit the Qur՚n to memory. In Hafiz’s case, the title was not unwarranted, for he was a dervish who taught the Qur՚n in an academy founded by his patron.
While The Divan is the best known of Hafiz’s works, he also wrote in various other patterns common to Persian poetry. The Divan itself is a collection of short poems, lyric in quality, in the form known as ghazals. In the original Persian, these poems consist of from five to sixteen couplets (called baits). The particular poetic form has been compared to the ode and the sonnet in English-language poetry because of the lyric qualities, the length, and the subject matter. One curious feature of Hafiz’s ghazals is that the last two lines normally contain the poet’s name. The first line of each ghazal introduces the rhyme, which is repeated in every other succeeding line within the poem.
Although relatively little known in the Western world, Hafiz’s Divan has remained the most popular poetry ever written in his native land. It has even been considered oracular, and Persians sometimes consult it by opening the book and placing a finger on a chance passage, hoping to have an answer thereby to whatever question has arisen. Such a procedure, or a variation of it, was supposedly done at the death of the poet. Because of exception taken to some of his poems, his corpse was at first denied the usual burial rites. To settle the question, some of his ghazals were written on slips of paper and placed in an urn, one to be drawn out by a child. According to legend, the verse drawn by chance from the urn said that Hafiz should be given appropriate funeral rites, as he would enter Paradise; thus the question was settled.
Through the centuries there has been debate over whether his poetry should be taken literally or symbolically, with those who see in The Divan a serious work by a great Persian philosopher and student of the Qur՚n taking one side of the question, and those who see it as a fine expression of a warmly alive human being taking the other. Western readers who cannot see anything religious in these superficially hedonistic poems should call to mind the religious expression, veiled in sensual imagery, in the poetry of John Donne and Richard Crashaw in England, Saint John of the Cross in Spain, and Edward Taylor in the United States.
Literal or symbolic, the imagery of Hafiz’s poetry is warm,...
(The entire section is 1162 words.)