(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Hafiz c. 1326-1389/90

(Full name Shamsoddin Mohammad Hafiz of Shiraz.) Persian poet.

Acclaimed as the supreme lyric poet of Persia, Hafiz is best known for his Divan (believed to have been compiled in around 1368), a collection of more than five hundred of his ghazals, or short lyric poems. The poems celebrate conventional subjects such as love and its pleasures and pains, and the drinking of wine, but Hafiz's subtlety has endeared him to scholars and the general public alike. Using simple, unaffected language, Hafiz took traditional themes and, with skill and artistry, arranged them in such a way that his work has never been bettered in Persion literature. He is credited with inventing the technique of combining two or more themes, sometimes incongruous ones, into a harmonious whole that can be read literally or metaphorically. His technical innovations allowed him to make mystery the focal point of many of his poems-mystery related to what A. J. Arberry has termed Hafiz's "doctrine of intellectual nihilism." In times past the poems' mystical element—Hafiz practiced Sufuism—dominated discussion of his works, but a more literal reading now prevails.

Biographical Information

Little verifiable information is known concerning Hafiz's life. Shamsoddin Mohammad, Hafiz's given name, was born in Shiraz, in what is now Iran, to a merchant father who died when the boy was young. Hafiz was educated in the Arabic language, studied the Koran ("Hafiz" means one who has memorized the Koran), all the Muslim sciences taught at the time, and literature. Hafiz later worked as a teacher and a copyist of manuscripts. Once his own poems became recognized and admired, Hafiz acquired wealthy patrons. It appears likely that Hafiz lived some years at the court of Shah Mensour as an official poet. Although legend has it that Hafiz left Shiraz only once in his lifetime, there is some indication that he journeyed out of the immediate area on a few occasions. Nevertheless, Hafiz was devoted to Shiraz and refused offers from assorted sultans and princes to leave his land and practice his craft elsewhere.

Major Works

Hafiz's work, consisting of more than five hundred poems, is collected under the title of Divan. According to tradition Hafiz prepared his own edition in about 1368. This manuscript, if it existed, is not the source of the thousands of extant variant transcriptions; they seem to derive from a posthumous edition published by Hafiz's friend Muhammad Gulandam. Editors have been plagued with doubtful or spurious poems attributed to Hafiz, because placing Hafiz's name with another's poem was an easy way to ensure a large readership. It is sometimes very difficult for scholars to decide which of Hafiz's poems are incontrovertibly genuine. The poems of Hafiz have received tremendous acclaim and have been translated into many languages. For example, Johann Gottfried von Goethe loosely rendered some of them into German. Translators have had some difficulty in doing justice rendering Hafiz's work in English. Arberry writes that it is generally agreed "that it is a mistake to attempt to reproduce in English the monorhyme which is so characteristic a feature of the original." Richard Le Gallienne writes that "so distasteful to English ideas are the metrical devices and adornments pleasing in a Persian ear that the attempt to reproduce them in English can only result in the most tiresome literary antics, a mirthless buffoonery of verse.… Rhythms which in Persian, doubtless, make the sweetest chiming, fitted with English words, become mere vulgar and ludicrous jingle." To combat this translators favor being faithful to the original idea and not concerning themselves with imitating rhymes or having the same number of lines.

Critical Reception

Arberry asserts that "Hafiz is as highly esteemed by his countrymen as Shakespeare by us, and deserves as serious consideration." Much scholarly effort has been directed towards interpretation. J. Christoph Bürgel has summarized the problem: "The difficulty of understanding Hafiz correctly does not lie in his lexicon or grammar. He does not use rare or difficult words and his phraseology is simple and very clear. There is hardly any single verse of Hafiz posing a problem in itself. However, there is also hardly a ghazal not posing a problem of meaning and, consequently, of interpretation. In other words, the obfuscation of meaning is created by the juxtaposition of verses that seem to contradict each other, be it by their moral implications or by their belonging to different ontological layers." While some early critics went so far as to claim that Hafiz's poems are incoherent and lack unity, such comments can often be traced to faulty translations and cultural misunderstandings.

Principal Work

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Principal English Editions

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Poems of Shemseddin Mohammed Hafiz Of Shiraz. 3 vols. [translated by John Payne] 1901

Fifty Poems [edited by Arthur J. Arberry] 1953

The Divan-i-Hafiz [translated by H. Wilberforce Clarke] 1997

John Payne (essay date 1901)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Poems of Shemseddin Mohammed Hafiz of Shiraz, E.J. Brill, Leyden, 1901, pp. xi-xxix.

[In the following essay, Payne discusses the limitations of various biographies of Hafiz before providing his own sketch of the poet's life which emphasizes his lack of religious belief.]


There are many so-called lives of the greatest of Persian poets; but they are all, without exception, mere collections of pointless and irrelevant anecdotes, mostly bearing manifest signs of ex post facto fabrication and often treating of matters completely foreign to the nominal subject1, and carefully refrain from touching upon the...

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A. J. Arberry (essay date 1946)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hafiz and His English Translators," in Islamic Culture, Vol. XX, No. 2 and 3, April, 1946 and July, 1946, pp. 111-28, 229-49.

[In the following essay, Arberry, who has himself translated Hafiz's works, traces the history of English translations of the poems of Hafiz.]


A century and a half ago, when the East India Company had but recently stumbled into a great Imperial inheritance in Bengal, and its servants were concerned to equip themselves linguistically for the onerous responsibilities that had settled upon their shoulders, it was a mark of polite culture in the brilliant society of Calcutta to be able to illustrate a point or...

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Eric Schroeder (essay date 1948)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Verse and Translation and Hafiz," in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. VII, No. 4, October, 1948, pp. 209-22.

[In the following essay, Schroeder discusses translations of the works of Hafiz, focusing on the importance of rhythm, repetition, and extensive annotation, and criticizing the rendering of Hafiz's poems by A. J. Arberry.]

Amodest book generally arouses gratitude and respect, and these are among the feelings with which one lays down Professor Arberry's selection from the works of Hafiz and his fifteen English translators. His explicit purposes—to provide a textbook for those beginning to read Persian poetry and to exhibit the variety of Hafiz'...

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Alessandro Bausani (essay date 1958)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Way to a Better Understanding of the Structure of Western Poetry," East and West, Vol. 9, No. 1-2, March-June, 1958, pp. 145-53.

[In the following essay, Bausani analyzes the text of many Persian verses, including those of Hafiz, discussing the styles and techniques displayed in the lyrics of seventh-century Iran.]

The scientific study of style in both European and Oriental lyrics is a comparatively recent conquest of our literary criticism. Unfortunately, the student of the form and historical developments of European, "Western", literary style does not have at his disposal sufficient materials for stylistic comparisons. "A thing is better known through its...

(The entire section is 7261 words.)

Michael Craig Hillman (essay date 1972)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hafez and Poetic Unity through Verse Rhythms," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Hillman attempts to explain the musical elements of Hafiz's verse, contending that it is the inability of translators to adequately capture these rhythms in English that makes their work unsatisfying.]

The following is an impressionistic translation of a poem by Hafez (fourteenth century A.D.), the premier lyric poet in the Persian language:

(1) Your entwined tresses,
I'm ever drunk with the brought breeze of
Your sorcerer's eyes,

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Von R. M. Rehder (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unity of the Ghazals of Hafiz," Der Islam, Vol. 51, 1974, pp. 55-96.

[In the following essay, Rehder critiques A. J. Arberry's analysis (see Further Reading) of the unity of Hafiz's ghazals and discusses his own conclusions on the subject.]

The study of the poetry of Hafiz is important not only in its own right and for the understanding of Persian (and Islamic) literature, but also for what it contributes to poetics, to the understanding of all poetry. Persian literature has only very rarely been looked at as literature, and this is true of Hafiz's poems as well, but one subject which has attracted some attention is the problem of the unity of his...

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J. Christoph Bürgel (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ambiguity: A Study in the Use of Religious Terminology in the Poetry of Hafiz," in Intoxication, Earthly and Heavenly: Seven Studies on the Poet Hafiz of Shiraz, edited by Michael Glunz and J. Christoph Burgel, Peter Lang, Inc., 1991, pp. 8-39.

[In the following essay, Burgel argues that Hafiz's ghazals resist an easy understanding and must be examined as part of a large, complex, and ambiguous context.]

I. The difficulty of understanding Hafiz correctly does not lie in his lexicon or his grammar. He does not use rare or difficult words and his phraseology is simple and very clear. There is hardly any single verse of *Hafiz posing a problem in...

(The entire section is 11296 words.)

Michael Glinz (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet's Heart: A Polyfunctional Object in the Poetic System of the Ghazal," in Intoxication, Earthly and Heavenly: Seven Studies on the Poet Hafiz of Shiraz, edited by Michael Glunz and J. Christoph Burgel, Peter Lang, Inc., 1991, pp. 53-68.

[In the following essay, Glunz explores the many metaphorical meanings and functions Hafiz derives from the word "heart."]

Introductory remarks

When we look at the frequency-list of lexical items in Hafiz' divan1 we find that the item 'dil' (heart) ranks 19th in a field of 4810 items and is far ahead of any other noun. This alone would justify an inquiry into...

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Julie Scott Meisami (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ghazal as Fiction: Implied Speakers and Implied Audience in Hafiz's Ghazals," in Intoxication, Earthly and Heavenly: Seven Studies on the Poet Hafiz of Shiraz, edited by Michael Glünz and J. Christoph Burgel, Peter Lang, Inc., 1991, pp. 89-103.

[In the following essay, Meisami argues for taking a literaryas opposed to a biographical or allegoricalapproach to studying the relationship between speaker and audience in Hafzz's poetry.]

Since Roger Lescot called attention to the plurality of the object or addressee of Hafiz's ghazals, it has become commonplace to speak of parallelism between the ma 'shuq, mamduh and ma...

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Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Ahmad, Nazir. "A Very Old Source of Hafiz's Ghazals." Indo-Iranica XVIII, No. 1 (March 1965): 35-47.

Explores an early manuscript containing 126 ghazals of Hafiz, some of which have not generally been anthologized.

Arberry, A. J. "Orient Pearls at Random Strung." Bulletin of The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. XI, No. 4 (1946): 699-712.

Examination of William Jones's classic A Persian Song that considers how faithful it is to Hafiz's strongly thematic original. Also describes the difficulties peculiar to translating Persian into English.

——. Introduction to Fifty Poems of Hafiz, edited...

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