History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 June 2009

Rumi: "That which frees you from your tiny self"

The Persians love poetry so much that one 10th century poet, Rabia Balkhi, wrote his last poem in his own blood. The Persian Sufi poetic tradition spans 1,000 years and is part of a living tradition within the larger tradition of Persian mysterical poetry. Jalal al-Din Rumi, born in 1207, was one of the first major Persian poets to receive attention in the West. About 80 years ago his poems were translated into accurate, word-for-word Victorian prose (English is closer to Persian than either Arabic or Turkish); later reworkings by poets such as Robert Bly took more creative license.

You are like the sun–
Without your face, the garden is yellow and pale–
Without you, the world is like dust–
Without you, the circle of love turns cold.
( The Missing Sun)

Rumi was born in Afghanistan, and fled along the Silk Road to Turkey when the Mongols invaded in the 13th century. He wrote in Persian, his native language, and his works include 30,000 verses of impassioned lyric poetry and an additional 20,000 verses contained in his master work, the Mathnawi. This is a tapestry of Aesopian fables, everyday life scenes of his time, revelations from the Koran, and metaphysics in the Sufi tradition. His work is a synthesis of all Islamic culture drawing on Arab traditions through Hellenistic, Christian, Jewish, and Persian cultures.

Rumi was regarded as a “completed” human being who embodies divine attributes.

Reason said, “We live in a world
of six directions – and that’s it!”

Love replied, “There is a path beyond,
and I have traveled it many times.”

Reason saw a market and set up shop,
but love trades in another currency altogether.

(Trading in Love's Currency)

Some Muslims considered Rumi a second Mohammad, Christians as a second Christ, and Jews as a second Moses. Sufis, the most spiritual of Islamic traditions, are drawn to the mystical and expound a religion based on Love. In Persia, particularly, the metaphor of Love, the Lover, and the Beloved was developed so vividly that metaphoric significance sometimes was mistaken for sensuality.

At breakfast tea a beloved asked her lover,
“Who do you love more, yourself or me?”

“From my head to my foot I have become you.
Nothing remains of me but my name.
You have your wish. Only you exist.
I’ve disappeared like a drop of vinegar
in an ocean of honey.”
(The Ruby)

For the Sufi, love is the cause of existence, “the hand behind the puppets.” Recognition of the Beloved (or Friend) in human form is a recognition of spiritual gifts Allah bestows on His creatures. Friendship and love are essential values, the celebration of “hereness.”

In love’s circle there’s another kind of serenity;
in love’s wine, another kind of hangover,
What you learned in school is one thing–
love is something entirely different.
(Something Different)

In poetry, very little is what it appears to be. Sufi poets, especially, inhabits many worlds simultaneously, “worlds within worlds.” Their favorite themes are spiritual separation and solitude; the experience of connectness and unity; and passion and immediacy--in other words, “that which frees you from your tiny self.”

Don’t go away, come near.
Don’t be faithless, be faithful.
Find the antidote in the venom.
Come to the root of the root of yourself
(The Root of the Root of Your Self)

Sufi works were sung or recited with music at Sufi gatherings as an outward expression of a spiritual meditation. Poems are often written in quatrains (4-line poems) with extensive symbolism. Wine = divine love; drunkenness = ecstasy of direct knowledge of God; a tavern = a Sufi gathering place; a tavern-goer = lower class, poverty, humility; rogues or profligates = Sufi dervishes. The language of love = the longing for divine nearness. When you lose yourself, you will reach the Beloved (God).

Heart came on solid footing with breath refined
to warn the best of communities.
Heart placed your head
like a pen on the page of love.

We are joyous pennants in your just wind.
Master, to where do you dance?
(Love Is a Stranger)

Sources: The Essential Rumi (tr. by Coleman Barks); Love Is a Stranger (tr. by Kabir Helminski); Love’s Alchemy, Poems from the Sufi Tradition (tr. by David and Sabrineh Fideler)

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Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fascinating post, Lynna! Thank you. Middle Eastern culture is so incredibly rich. I took a lot of Middle Eastern history in college, and we did read some literature, but no Persian love poetry, alas. Is this research for a book?

12:04 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And how apposite to the world I, at least, am so ignorant of. Can you recommend a favorite translation of Rumi, Lynna?

8:40 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Tracy--no, I'm not researching for a book, just completing my class in Middle East history.

Pam--Any of the source books listed; I particularly liked Love Is a Stranger--the poems are short and translation is not too flowery.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thank you for this post, Lynna. I was turned on to Rumi a few years ago by a now-former beau, and I loved how lyrical, yet economical, his poetry is. The edition I have, Pam, is a hardcover: "The Essence of Rumi," translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, published by Castle Books in 1997. I have no idea whether it's one of the better translations or not.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thank you Lynna, your post broadened my horizon. I will be ordering one of Barks books since both you and Amanda recommended his work.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

What beautiful poetry. Thanks for posting. Until today, I'd never heard of Rumi!

1:51 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Lynna, great, great post. What I like about Rumi is that he can be sumblimely beautiful and also down-to-earth funny. Here's a hilarious one...

I am so drunk
I have lost the way in
and the way out.
I have lost the earth, the moon, and the sky.
Don't put another cup of wine in my hand,
pour it in my mouth,
for I have lost the way to my mouth.

2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabia Balkhi was a woman, not a man. She was one of the most famous Afghan poets, but did not write her final poem because she "loved poetry" as you suggest, but because she was slashed and left to die in a bathhouse when her brother discovered she was in love with their Turkish slave.

1:25 PM  

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