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.
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.
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.
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.