Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Poetry Analysis, Hafiz & Goethe, Calligraphy, and Memorization

Leah Rosenthal: Oral Culture and Poetry

Poetry Analysis, Hafiz & Goethe, Calligraphy, and Memorization

            In many poems by Hafiz, he uses the idea that classically beautiful things do not feel as beautiful when you do not have someone else to appreciate them with. In two of his poems, he shows the contrast of our perception of beauty with and without the presence of a friend or someone who is important to us. Here are a couple lines form the first poem:

I see no love in anyone,

Where, then, have all the lovers gone?

And when did all our friendship end,

And what’s become of every friend?

A hundred thousand flowers appear

But no friends sing for them to hear —

Thousands of nightingales are dumb:

Where are they now? Why don’t they come?

This poem shows the emptiness that one feels when observing beautiful things without having someone to share their experience with. Sometimes, beautiful things seem to exist, but become significantly less beautiful with a lack of friendship and love. Hafiz was noticing and calling attention to the fact that people are not placing enough importance on friendship, and seemed to be saying this as a general statement about the world. Maybe now, he thinks that we do not see friendship as being as important as people did in years past, but that definitely does not mean that it actually is less important. In this poem, there is such a lack of love in the air that even the nightingales cannot recognize the beauty of a thousand flowers. Since nightingales represent the burning love of a true devotee, it shows that that beauty could not be recognized or appreciated because there was no love present that would allow one to recognize it. However, the next poem shows how much beauty can be enhanced when you have someone by your side:

The orchard charms our hearts, and chatter when

            Our dearest friends appear — is sweet;

God bless the time of the roses! To drink our wine

            Among the roses here — is sweet!

Suddenly in this poem, now that there is a friend or loved one present, everything seems to be sweet and beautiful. This shows the dramatic, positive change that can be observed when you have someone to share the beauty of your life experiences with.

            The next poem is called “Love the Foe” by Sa’di. The poem focuses on the idea that, although one can adore their Beloved, they are also often quite cruel:

Thanks to love sincere and whole

I confess;

Love, that burned my heart, my soul

Doth caress.

            In these lines, Sa’di seems to reveal his confusion about how a “love sincere and whole” can also “burn [his] heart, [his] soul”. There seems to be this duality when, if you have a burning, passionate love for someone, the love will also be cruel to you and “burn” you. It brings back the theme that good moments do not last forever, and you just have to learn to embrace the good and the bad because they will both be present at some point. This reminds me of how some metaphorical attributes of the Beloved are very beautiful and positive, such as “sugar lips.” However, there is also the idea of the Beloved’s eyebrows being compared to daggers, showing that the Beloved can also be cruel.

                  The next poem is called “Departure” by Rumi. It describes what one can observe when rising to heaven:

O weary life that weightest naught, O sleep that on my soul dost

weigh!                                              

O heart, toward thy heart’s love wend, and O friend, fly toward

the Friend

            The first idea that these lines bring up is the fact that life is weary. This is a common theme in Persian poetry, but not necessarily in a pessimistic way. Although life may be weary, it is pointless to just live life looking forward to some sort of afterlife. You have to make the best out of it and create your own pleasure and beauty. These lines also suggest the importance of love and friendship, which also seem to exist in heaven. This means that love and friendship are almost like little bits of heaven that exist on Earth, and that is one of the most important things to focus on in life. In addition, the last time that Rumi says “friend,” it is capitalized, meaning that it is a metaphor. In this case, “friend” seems to mean God, which shows the intense power and impact that a genuine friend can have on your life.

            After learning about him all week, it is clear that Hafiz was a very impressive poet with a beautiful mind. Goethe was a famous German poet in the late 18th-century and early 19th-century who took great interest in the writings of Hafiz. Goethe was very interested in the East, and Islam specifically, since he was very young. But when he met Hafiz, his interest blossomed much more. Goethe decided to write a divan, or collection of poems, in which he used references to Hafiz’s own divan to create intercommunication between German and Persian cultures. At first, he referred to this collection of poems as “poems addressed to Hafiz,” but later, formally called it the West-östlicher Divan. The divan consists of twelve books, in which Goethe referenced many other Persian poets, but Hafiz was the only one who had a whole book dedicated to him. Hafiz seemed to inspire him more than anyone else.[i]  Goethe had an immense amount of respect for Hafiz and often draw parallels between himself and this poet he so admires, but also does not give off the impression that they are the same. Goethe spiritually connected to the mystical lyrics Hafiz uses to discuss the Divine and the appreciation of the pleasures in life that Goethe wanted to incorporate into his own poetry.[ii]

            As the semester goes on, I have learned to appreciate calligraphy and the memorization of poetry more and more. With more practice of calligraphy, I have learned to focus on making sure the sizes of the characters stay constant, keeping them all on a straight line, and really focusing on the way that I hold my pen in order to create the most beautiful shape. Memorizing has also become less difficult because I have learned to memorize the lines in different pieces in order to organize them in my mind. When learning the lines in smaller parts, it is easier to learn them individually and then just takes a little bit more effort to put them together as a whole poem. Practicing memorization and calligraphy has also felt more rewarding after hearing the poetry being recited in full performance through music. My favorite type of performance so far is when the poetry is sung alongside musicians playing traditional Persian instruments such as the setar and dotar. There is a very unique sound that is created that is very mystical and enchanting. The repetition and beauty in it almost seems like it could put someone into a trance. Overall, this combination of memorization, calligraphy, learning more about the history of the poets, and hearing music being paired with the poetry has been a very rewarding experience.


[i] Tafazoli, Hamid. “GOETHE, JOHANN WOLFGANG Von.” Encyclopædia Iranica, December 15, 2001. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/goethe.

[ii] de Vries, Caroline. “Hafez and the West-Eastern Divan (West-Östlicher Divan) of Goethe: Dialogues among Languages, Cultures, Religions, and Time.” The International Conference on the Soul-Nourishing Thinking and the Elevated and Symbolic Language of Khajeh Shamsoddin Mohammad Hafez of Shiraz, 2015, 6–8.

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