One of Persia’s great poets, sometimes called the greatest, Saՙdi is venerated as almost a saint in his homeland, where his works are read alongside the Qur՚n and where he is fondly referred to as Shaykh Saՙdi or, for short, the Shaykh. Saՙdi is also the best-known Persian poet in the West, except possibly for Omar Khayyám, whose one work (Rub’yt, twelfth century; True Translation of Hakim Omar Khayyam’s “Robaiyat,” 1994; commonly known as Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám) hardly compares with Saՙdi’s extensive and varied output. The English-speaking world became acquainted with Saՙdi before it did with Omar Khayyám: Persian was the official language of India when the British arrived, and British officials used Saՙdi’s The Rose Garden as a language text. The Rose Garden was translated repeatedly into English during the nineteenth century—in expurgated versions still read as accurate texts (the Victorians were especially shocked by Saՙdi’s casual acceptance of pederasty, a common, albeit illegal, practice in the Persia of his day). Unfortunately, Saՙdi has not found his own Edward FitzGerald, the superb English translator of the 1859 edition of Omar Khayyám. Probably the best English translation of Saՙdi is Edward Rehatsek’s version of The Rose Garden, published in a limited edition for the Kama Shastra Society in 1888 and reissued in 1965.
As a battered survivor of difficult times, when the Muslim world was beset by Mongols on one side and Crusaders on the other (not to mention rulers at home), Saՙdi still has some wisdom to offer the modern world. Saՙdi’s politics of survival is not the same pious wisdom he offered the Victorians, and his expedient advice might not be altogether pleasing. The literary historian Edward G. Browne called The Rose Garden “one of the most Machiavellian works in the Persian language” (whether he was admiring or condemning is not clear). However, a survivor who came out singing, as Saՙdi did, has something worth hearing on how to retain one’s humanity through it all. Saՙdi’s humanity reverberates most strongly in The Orchard and The Rose Garden—even if, in translation, the singing is rather faint.