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Hafez Biography | Poet

Photo of  Hafez

Hafez was born at an unknown date, possibly 1325/26, in Shiraz, a major cultural center in Fars Province, southern Persia, that had been the capital of the Buwayhid Empire in earlier centuries. His given name was Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī ; he took the name Hafez from the Arabic word حافظ, a term of praise used to refer to one who knows the Koran by heart (derived ultimately from a root meaning to keep or guard) — which he did early in life. His parents had originally come from Kazerun, which is farther west, and he was the last of four great medieval Persian poets, the earlier ones being Ferdawsi, Omar Khayyam and Saadi.

Four shahs ruled during Hafez’s lifetime — Shah Abu Ishaq (1341-1353); Mubariz Muzaffar (1353-1358); Shuka (1358-1384); and Timur, who gained the throne of Persia in 1384. All four supported the poet through their patronage, although Mufazzar was a strict ruler who apparently ousted him. It has also been claimed that Hafez lost favor with Shuka by mocking poets whom he deemed to be inferior, a remark which Shuka, as a poet himself, may have taken personally. There is no available historical evidence to support this story, according to which Hafez subsequently fled northward to Esfahan and Yazd.

Legends Regarding the Poet

As with many famous people, the life of Hafez has been the subject of numerous legends (much like the one about George Washington and the cherry tree), to the point where it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction in this area. In addition to the Koran, he is said to have memorized the works of four fellow Persian poets, including Saadi and Rumi, author of the voluminous Masnavi. There is another story — similar to that of Dante and Beatrice — about how Hafez held a mystic vigil in hopes of eventually marrying one Shakh-e Nabat, whose beauty had enraptured him but who he knew would not return his love. An equally beautiful angel appeared to him during his vigil, resulting in him deciding to pursue a mystic union with Allah.

Hafez’s Poetry

The chief work by Hafez is his 700-odd-poem collection called the Divan-e Hafez (Divan of Hafez), which has been widely used among Iranians for fortunetelling — somebody just selects a verse from the collection at random and uses it to make a prediction. (The word divan means nothing more than a collection of poems.) Poems in the Divan include ghazals (lyric poems about love and wine) and rubaiyats (four-line poems that dealt with mystic subjects). They illustrate the poet’s love of humanity, contempt for mediocrity and hypocrisy, and knack for making ordinary experiences universal and relating it to the mystic’s ever-continuing quest for union with the Divine.

A Word about Persian and Islamic Poetry in General

As an Indo-European language, Persian is in no way related to Arabic, which belongs to the Semito-Hamitic family, although it uses the same script and has borrowed much of its vocabulary. Since ancient times, the Persian people have had a knack for writing poems about practically every subject, even scientific ones. Up to a point, Islamic literature had been written predominantly in Arabic, but when the Abbasids came to power in 750 C.E., they hired many Persians to be their scribes and government officials. A flowering of Muslim literature in Persian thus developed.

Persian poetry has seldom been translated literally. In many cases, such as Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat translation mentioned above, little or no trace of the original text remains, and much figurative language, such as animal imagery, is lost. The following excerpt from Hafez’s First Ode will prove the point:

Persian text

الا يا ايه الشاقي اَدر كاسا و ناولها

كه عشق اَسان نمود اول ولي افتادي مشكلها

A literal translation (this is taken from A Specimen of Persian Poetry or Odes of Hafez: with an English Translation and Paraphrase Chiefly from the Specimen Poeseos Persicæ of Baron Revizky by John Richardson, 1802. The book is available for viewing on Google Books) would be:

Ho! Come, cup bearer, carry around the wine, and present it;

For love appeared pleasant at first, but difficulties have since arisen.

The translator, however, rendered the lines as follows:

Fill, fill the cup with sparkling wine,

Deep let me drink the juice Divine.

The second line in particular departs hugely from the original. We could go on and on about the nuances of the Persian language.

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