Persian Love poetry and Aesthetic Experience
Thanks to the exquisite translations of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald, Persian quatrains (ruba’is, du-baitis, or tarānas) have been commonly associated with the name of Omar Khayyam. However, Persian quatrains were not composed solely by this poet. There were other Persian poets who composed ruba’i s even before Khayyam. While the ruba’is that were attributed or composed by Khayyam were mostly philosophical, there were poems that were different from those philosophical poems. Some of these poems were mystical and they were composed by the Sufi masters of Khorasan. In fact, the first mystical Persian poems that were composed in the 5th /10 century were in the form of quatrains. There were also three other forms of poetry that the Sufi poets composed in later centuries: the masnavi , the qasidah, and the ghazal.
These mystical poems, composed in the forms of masnavi, qasidah, and ghazal were generally used for expressing two types of teachings. While the masnavis were used mostly for elaborating the moral and doctrinal aspects of Sufism, the qasidas and the ghazals were used for expressing mystical experiences, particularly in erotic terms. It is in the qasidahs and the ghazals that one finds the most exciting expressions of a particular type of mysticism that is called the Sufism of love (tasawwuf-I ashiqanah), a school or a major trend in Persian Sufism that was developed in Khorasan after the 5th/11th Century. I have called this school Neo-Hallajian Mysticism not only because it is based on the Hallajian idea of primordial love in the divine Essence and between God and human beings, but also because the Sufis who followed this school usually used the literary devices that Hallaj used; the metaphors, the images, and even some of the allegories, such as the story of the moth and the candle.
Persian mystical love poetry (whether in the form of quatrain, the qasidah, or the ghazal) was based on the aesthetic experiences that the Sufis achieved while performing the practice of transcendental contemplation ( نظرعبرت). A Sufi who intended to enjoy this experience would sit in front of a beautiful object (such as a flower) or a handsome young person and contemplate the relative beauty in that object or person. The beauty was considered relative because it was considered an instant of divine Beauty, or a limited revelation of absolute Beauty. The contemplation was called transcendental because through this contemplation the subject goes beyond the relative and approaches the Absolute (اعتبار). In other words, by concentrating on the beauty of the created being, the contemplator is believed to reach the sublime Beauty. The Sufis use the term jam’ (in Persian yek Hemmati) to describe this spiritual process. Jam’ here means the identification of the contemplator with the object of contemplation by means of a one-pointed concentration. It is in fact a kind of unification. In the process of transcendental identification the lover in unified with the beloved. This identification or unification cannot be achieved so long as the contemplator is distracted by anything (tafriqah). (The story of Ahmad Ghazzali being distracted by some friends while he was contemplating a flower and a young person).
Transcendental contemplation was practiced in different places, but the ideal place for it was where no one would make distractions. There are stories about practicing this kind of contemplation in masques or in musical gatherings of the Sufis (majles-e sama’). The purpose of the sama’ was also to have aesthetic experience through hearing, a hearing that was called sama’ ibrat( سماع عبرت), transcendental hearing. Thus by adding the transcendental contemplation to the transcendental hearing, the Sufis would reinforce the process of identification (jam’). The aesthetic experience was not limited to hearing and seeing. The participants of the sama’, or those who sought to have aesthetic experience, tried to have their other senses enjoy beauty as well. The sense of tasting would enjoy tasteful things; the sense of smelling would enjoy the smell of a flower or incense; etc. This is why the poets speak in their love poems not only about the beautiful face of the beloved and his/her lineaments, but about the smell, or the odor that the breeze brings, and the taste of the water in the beloved’s mouth, and the kissing and touching the beloved. Mystical poetry seem to have described actual experiences in the earlier stage of love-mysticism. Thus, when they spoke of the shahid, they referred to a beautiful face that would render the transcendental contemplation possible. In later stages, however, the poets used the images that his imagination created for him. In still later stages, the poets used not what his imagination created, but rather what had become conventions and stereotyps.
I would end this lecture by analyzing one particular love poem, a ghazal, by the famous poet Hafez. In this ghazal, Hafez creates a scene for aesthetic experience, an experience which involves not only the sense of sight, but also other senses as well. The scene is created by the poet after an archetypal supposed experience that the poet, as a friend of God, has had in eternity. This experience is described in a verse in the Koran as a covenant that God made with the spirits of the children of Adam. When God brings the seeds of the children of Adam from his loin, He asks them: “Am I not your Lord? (الست بربکم) Whereupon they all reply :” yes, you are.” Thus human beings accepted God’s Lordship in pre-eternity (azal). According to the Sufis, this covenant was made between God and His friends or lovers (اولیاء الله) and the covenant was made by an act of contemplation. God actually revealed His Face ( وجه الله) to His friends and made them all fall in love with Him. Thus, the seed of love was implanted in the hearts of mankind in that very day, the day when Love and Beauty manifested themselves to the souls of the friends of God in the spiritual world. It is this primordial aesthetic experience that the famous poet Hafez tries to recapture by means of conventional metaphors of wine (contemplation of beauty through love), the cup (the face of God) and the cup-bearer (the Lord who shows His face).
زلف آشفته و خوی کرده و خندان لب و مست
پیرهن چاک و غزلخوان و صراحی در دست
نرگسش عربده جوی و لبش افسوس کنان
نیم شب دوش به بالین من آمد بنشست
سر فرا گوش من آورد و به آواز حزین
گفت ای عاشق دیرینۀ من خوابت هست؟
عاشقی را که چنین بادۀ شبگیر دهند
کافر عشق بود گر نبود باده پرست
برو ای زاهد و بر درد کشان خرده مگیر
که ندادند جز این تحفه به ما روز الست
آنچه او ریخت به پیمانه ما نوشیدیم
اگر از خمر بهشت است و گر از بادۀ مست
خندۀ جام می و زلف گره گیر نگار
ای بسا توبه که چون توبۀ حافظ بشکست
(The Beloved), tress disheveled; sweat expressed; lip laughing; intoxicated; Garment rent; song-singing; soblet in His hand;
Eye, contest-seeking; lip lamenting—-
Came, at midnight, last night, to my pillow; (and there) sate.
To my ear, He brought His head; (and), in a low soft voice,
Said: “O my distraught Lover! Sleep is thine” (sleep hath overcome thee).
Of whatever, He (God) poured into our cup, we have drunk (good or bad);
Whether it be of the wine of Paradise, or of the cup of intoxication.
That Ārif (Lover), to whom they give wine like this, night-watching
Is infidel to love, if he be not wine-worshipper.
O Zāhid! Go: seize not a small matter against the drinkers of wine-dregs:
For, save this gift (of dregs), naught did they give us on the day of Alast.
The laughter (mantling foam) of the cup of wine; and the knot-seizing tress of the Beloved…. .
O many a repentance hath it shattered like the repentance of Hāfiz.
(trans. Clarke, vol 1, p. 111)