(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: The premier lyric poet in more than a millennium of literary expression in the Persian language, Hafiz represents the culmination of lyrical styles and modes that began some five centuries before him and remains a model for Iranian poets today.

Early Life

Shams al-Din Muhammed of Shiraz, whose nom de plume was to be Hafiz, was born sometime between 1317 and 1326. His merchant father, who had emigrated from Esfahan sometime earlier, apparently died when Hafiz was young. Hafiz received a traditional education in Arabic, Koranic studies, science, and literature. Hafiz’s poetry reveals his intimate familiarity with the five centuries of Persian literature that preceded him, as well as his knowledge of Islamic sciences and his special competence in Arabic. His pen name testifies to this last skill, because the word “Hafiz” denotes a person who has memorized the Koran.

Little specific information is available on the private life of the most acclaimed Persian lyric poet in history. Citations in biographical dictionaries, references in chronicles and other historical sources, and possible autobiographical details in his poems are mostly unverifiable. Information is available, however, about the tumultuous political history of Hafiz’s native province of Fars and its capital, Shiraz, during his lifetime.

At the time of Hafiz’s birth, Mahmud Shah Inju ruled Fars in the name of the Il-Khanid ruler Abu Saʿid. The latter’s successor executed Mahmud in 1335. Anarchy ensued, as Mahmud’s four sons strove to gain control over their father’s kingdom. One of them, Abu Ishaq, took over Shiraz seven years later and ruled, albeit with opposition, until 1352. During this period, Hafiz composed poems in praise of Abu Ishaq and one of his viziers; these poems show that he was a seriously regarded court poet by the time he was thirty years of age.

In 1353 came the capture of Shiraz by the Mozaffarid leader called Mubariz al-Din Muhammad, who had Abu Ishaq summarily beheaded in front of the Achaemenid ruins at Persepolis. Mubariz al-Din, whose family was to control Shiraz until 1393, imposed strict, puritanical Sunni religious observation on the city during his five-year reign, a situation Hafiz bewailed in several poems. In addition, Hafiz’s signature on a manuscript dated 1355 implies that he had to seek work as a scribe at that time, either because he was not yet economically established as a poet or because he was out of favor with the Mozaffarid court. In 1358, Mubariz al-Din was deposed, blinded, and succeeded by his son Jalal al-Din Shah Shujaʿ. Hafiz, whose lot improved when Shah Shujaʿ ascended the throne, eulogized this royal patron in a number of poems.

Life’s Work

It was during the long reign of Shah Shujaʿ, between 1358 and 1384, that Hafiz’s fame began to spread throughout the Persian-speaking world, westward to the Arab world and Ottoman Empire, and eastward to Mughal India. Altogether, he composed some five hundred ghazal poems and a handful of poems in other traditional Persian verse forms. The fourteenth century was the culminating age of the Persian ghazal, and Hafiz was its apogee.

The ghazal is a conventional composition of usually between five and thirteen couplets, the first closed and the others open, resulting in a monorhyme pattern such as aabaca. Each constituent verse exhibits the same quantitative metrical pattern. The poet’s nom de plume generally appears in a ghazal’s final couplet.

The basic subject of these poems was idealized love, treated with conventional, stylized imagery in an equally conventional diction. The Hafizian ghazal, while displaying amatory, mystical, and panegyrical modes typical of the verse form up to his day, is distinctive in its merging of modes, in Hafiz’s creation of an ambivalent lyric world of love in which readers can sense both love of God and passion for a romanticized, this-worldly beloved. An example is the very famous ghazal with which Hafiz’s Dīvān (c. 1368; The Divan, 1891) usually begins:

O cupbearer, pass around a cup and hand it to me;
for love appeared at first easy, but difficulties arose.
In hope of the musk pod the zephyr eventually opens from those tresses, what blood spilt in hearts because of musky
Color the prayer-carpet with wine should the Magian elder so advise;
for the wayfarer knows the way, and the stages.
At beloved’s abodes what security of pleasure can exist?
Every second the caravan bells cry out: tie up the loads.
Dark night, the fear of the waves, and such a terrifying whirlpool— how can the lightburdened and shore-bound
fathom my state?
Everything has dragged me from self-interest to infamy;
how can that secret which inspires gatherings remain secret?
If you desire the beloved’s presence, Hafiz, don’t be absent;
when you meet whom you desire, let the world go, give it up.

A reader’s first impression of this poem is of polysemy and multiplicity of patterns of imagery, which is another typical feature of the Hafizian ghazal. Once the two levels of the speaker’s emotional state as a lover are discerned, however, one begins to sense the poem’s integrity. A quasi-temporal and physical setting is implied in the...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)