Explicatory Essay on Hafez: 14th Century Poet

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Since the 14th century, people have been analyzing and talking about the works of Persian Sufi poet Hafez. Born between 1320 to 1325 a.d. in Shiraz, South-Central Iran, Hafez was one of the two most influential, studied, and praised poets of the Middle East and even the world. His works centered around the ideas of spirituality, love, and wine. Hafez's poems in modern-day language are considered mystical, aesthetic, and rich in imagery. Through his hundreds of Ghazals, a lyric poem of 6 to 15 couplets linked by a unity of subject and symbolism rather than by a logical sequence of ideas, Hafez was able to deliver messages of philosophy and mystic love that people could relate to even today. Despite having such prominent works in the world of literature and poetry, there is not much known about Hafez and his actual life.

“Hafez” in reality is a pen name, a title given to someone who has memorized the Quorn, the holy book of Islam, as a child. Hafez was born as Shams al-Din Muhammad Shirazi and is said to have memorized the Quorn in at least fourteen different ways. His religion and spirituality show heavily in his work. Hafez grew up admiring other famous Persian Poets such as Attar, Rumi, and Nizami who all shared more “radical” views of an unorthodox kind of Islam: Sufism. Sufism would later be incorporated into many of Hafez's poems, but so will love. In his twenties Hafez met a woman named Shakh-e-Nabat, she had extreme beauty but Hafez was to marry another woman. He went on to marry the other woman but always thought of Nabat and included her in his poems, basically referring to her as the “Creator’s Beauty,” using her as a symbol for temptation (Ladinsky). Hafez’s poems usually follow a theme of temptation in the forms of women and wine, and whether it is spiritually right to accept these pleasures and live in joy rather than to decline them and live in a state of agony. These were very radical thoughts for 14th century Iran where everyone believed in a very orthodox Sunni Muslim society. In his late twenties, Hafez started to work in a mystical order with a lifetime role model, Attar of Shiraz, a famous poet at the time, but less well-known to the modern world. Through his mentor, Hafez gained increasing fame in his region and became a “spiritual master” filling his poems with rich mystic themes of God, Wine, and Love. His fame gained him a place in the court of Abu Ishak, which is a scholarly society. This not only gave him fame but it made him a prominent figure in the region, someone important to the Sunni nobles. As his works became more radical, the Shah (king) of the region declared Hafez’s ideas heresy, which made him flee to the southern city of Isfahan where he produced most of his poems, many of which showed his longing for his beautiful hometown. By the end of his life at around age 69 Hafez had produced over 500 Ghazals and 42 Rubaiyess which would make him even more famous globally. His works would be translated and studied by famous modern-day poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who both agreed that “Hafez is a poet for poets” since he “did not have any peers” for his time but seemed to instilled inspirations in people such as Queen Victoria of England and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (Fromeshi). Though Hafez was considered unorthodox for his time, what was viewed as heresy would soon translate to influences left all over the world through Hafez’s use of allusions, metaphor, and allegory in parallel with the themes of love, wine, and God.

In order to understand and correctly analyze most of Hafiz's poems one has to have foreknowledge of the structure of the metaphor in Persian poetry as well as how imagery contributes to these metaphors. For centuries before Hafez Sufi poets had set a sort of “standard” for metaphors and allegories which would not be clear to a Western reader. Unlike Western poets, most poets of this region, and time period, were expected to know famous pieces of literature and poems that precede them, as they would often include allusions to them in their own work. Just as Western poets would make an allusion to stories of Greek mythologies or the bible, Hafez used the image of “the nightingale and the rose as allusions to characters from well-known (Persian love) stories of such as Layla and Majnun or Farhad and Shirin” these stories can be compared to that of Shakespeare (15th century), though they were written in late 12th century middle east. These allusions are made as seen below. There are also misinterpretations when it comes to metaphors in Persian poetry. Common metaphors are no longer hinted at in the poem; rather, the reader is already expected to know them because they have been established in centuries past. For example a poet may use “rubies” as a metaphor to “lips” but never actually establish a comparison between the two since the comparison had been made many times in the past the author will just assume the audience will process the metaphor on their own.

One of Hafez’s most famous poems is “The Search for the Cup of Jamshid.” The couplets of the poem may initially appear so random that the poem seems to have no unity of its own. However, if the reader pays closer attention to the poem it has a central unity that is prevalent in most Persian mystic poetry. In this first verse of the poem, the reader faces an image brought from a possibly unfamiliar piece of Persian mythology, the Cup of Jamshid. According to Persian mythology, the Cup of Jamshid was a cup through which the Kings of ancient Persia could see the whole universe. Here, it becomes a symbol of spiritual enlightenment, a tool that allows the soul to understand the universe. Though this mythological cup transforms into a cup of wine, at the hands of the Master. There remains however some continuity in the use of Persian mythology, as the word for Pir, which usually refers to the Sufi Master, here refers to the 'Master of the Magians' the Magi are the Zoroastrian priests of Ancient Persia. In parallel with Sufi imagery, the master is drunk with the wine of the cup, which becomes a mirror through which he can see in all directions.

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There are three levels of imagery in the first stage of the poem. First, in a real, human dimension, the poet is in a tavern talking to his master, who is drunk from drinking wine from a cup. Second, at a mythological level, he is talking to a Zoroastrian Magi who holds the ancient Cup of Jamshid of the Persian Kings. Thirdly, at a mystical level, the disciple is conversing with his Sufi Master, who is drunk in the ecstasy of mystical love, which gives him a full understanding of all the Truths of the Universe. These three layers of interpretation give the poem depth and help tie the poem back to its center of unity: the wine-filled “Cup of Jamshid.” Here Hafez is using wine as an allegory to something that is regarded as “impure” actually being good. In Islam, drinking is not allowed and wine is seen as unorthodox. Hafez says that drinking the wine from this mystical cup will give him the power to know all the world’s secrets. What he is really trying to unveil is that it may not be such a bad thing to revel in things that make one happy such as wine.

Hafez then goes on to balance the dominant Pagan (belief in the wrong god) and Islamically unorthodox imagery in the poem by turning the conversation between the poet and the master into a theological one. The Master brings up a series of Koranic (relating to the koran) tales, such as the stories of Moses and Mohammad, all while tying them to a Sufi tradition. Thus, while the poet asks the Master to reveal to him the secrets of the universe, the Master replies that exposing these secrets is, according to Koranic tradition, a crime, and that not all men can make miracles. All this is reflective of Islamic orthodox theology, making the poem religiously acceptable for the religiously conservative reader. These ties to the Koran keep Hafez’s poems from being declared as too radical. It was Hafez's ambiguity that kept him from the attacks and allowed him to write poetry that bordered on heresy. The Persian tradition of building upon a Pre-Islamic (Zoroastrianism- the fire worshipers) past has still attracted the imagination and fascination of Persian poets since the time of Ferdowsi (an ancient and well-studied Persian poet, who had left much influence on medieval Persia). This past led many Persian poets, including Hafez, to interrogate themselves on the meaning of heresy. One of the first poets to address the problem of orthodoxy in Persian literature was Attar, Hafez’s mentor. While this poem seemed idol-worshipping at first, the mention of the Zoroastrian fate and calling Muslims “impious”, creates the afterthought that the poet transmits “true belief in faith” and does not necessarily align themselves with the hypocritical teachings of mainstream Islam. Thus, instead of becoming a praise of paganism, this poem could be interpreted as an attack on Islamic heresy, instead of the message it actually sends. This type of ambiguousness paved the way for other writers, like Hafez, to explore the limits of mystical and religious imagery in the realms of the heretic.

Hafez himself brought up Zoroastrian imagery in his poems. Like Attar, Hafez goes on to contrast true mysticism, an authentic longing for Unity with God, with the hypocrisy of the proper Mystic who remains attached to rules and cannot understand the true meaning of his actions. Here the Mazdean (Zoroastrian) Temple becomes an unorthodox way of coming to God and contrasts with the regulated, conventional Sufi way. Also, Zoroastrians, unlike Muslims, were allowed to produce and drink wine, so the Zoroastrian example allows for the poem to “examine the relativism of the (current) religious regulations.” Here, Hafez is doing what has become a Muslim common practice, and he achieves this with allusions that, like the one above, border on heresy.

But Hafez has even more means of balancing heresy and orthodoxy in order to make his poetry acceptable for the single-minded, orthodox interpreter. In order to justify the use of strongly sensual, drunken imagery, Hafez tended to end many of his poems with allusions to the Qur'an. However, the poem could quickly turn towards a religious allegory, in this case, an allusion to the day, according to the Koran, man accepted moral responsibility from God. Thus, drunkenness remains a metaphor for spiritual transcendence, and love remains a spiritual union between Master and Disciple. Religious allegories could make the rest of the poem acceptable through ambiguities in meaning, and the Islamic interpreter could always understand this sensual imagery as a strictly religious allegory. However, the more avid reader could find irony and mockery of religious conservatism in this poem, as double-meanings leave this ghazal open to often contradicting interpretations.

As seen, 'Hafiz is as highly esteemed by his countrymen as Shakespeare by us, and deserves as serious consideration.': '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 confusion 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 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. There is no set meter, rhythm, or pattern in Hafez’s poetry, but there is a flow of theology and mysticism. Even though many claim that Hafez is unclear, generations of people have used his forwarding thinking themes of God, Wine, and Love all of which could be applied to all peoples and centuries.

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Explicatory Essay on Hafez: 14th Century Poet. (2023, November 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/explicatory-essay-on-hafez-14th-century-poet/
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