The first Persian poet I ever read was Farid ud-Din Attar. Today’s selection is an extract from his wonderful work, The Conference of the Birds, an epic tale about the search for the mythical Simorgh, the one holy bird who could rule over all the other birds of the kingdom.
I still marvel at how readily I jumped into the text, without worrying about the fact that I had no access to the original Persian. While others in my class (including my professor) voiced their annoyance at the consistent rhyming couplets of our Penguin edition, I was sucked in by the absolutely beautiful description of the intoxication and all-consuming nature of love.
Star-struck teenager that I was, I missed (at first) the important Sufi idea that such passion was best and most beautifully felt and expressed for God, the (actual) One. This lofty lesson came in time. Indeed, their was a time I found this passage sickly sweet, and a dangerous way of viewing earthly relationships. But I think that this work’s greatest accomplishment is that it captures the joy rather than the fear of annihilation. Whatever it is we seek, we should not shy from being the moth rapturously consumed by the flame, from giving in to the ultimate spiritual object of our desire.
“The Valley of Love”
Love’s valley is the next, and here desire
Will plunge the pilgrim into seas of fire,
Until his very being is enflamed
And those whom fire rejects turn back ashamed.
The lover is a man who flares and burns,
Whose face is fevered, who in frenzy yearns,
Who knows no prudence, who will gladly send
A hundred worlds toward their blazing end,
Who knows of neither faith nor blasphemy,
Who has no time for doubt or certainty,
To whom both good and evil are the same,
And who is neither, but a living flame.
But you! Lukewarm in all you say or do,
Backsliding, weak—O, no, this is not you!
True lovers give up everything they own
To steal one moment with the Friend alone –
They make no vague, procrastinating vow,
But risk their livelihood, and risk it now.
Until their hearts are burnt, how can they flee
From their desire’s incessant misery?
They are the falcon when it flies distressed
In circles, searching for its absent nest –
They are the fish cast upon the land
That seeks the sea and shudders on the sand.
Love here is fire; its thick smoke clouds the head –
When love has come, the intellect has fled;
It cannot tutor love, and all its care
Supplies no remedy for love’s despair.
If you could seek the unseen, you would find
Love’s home, which is not reason or the mind,
And love’s intoxication tumbles down
The world’s designs for glory and renown –
If you could penetrate their passing show
And see the world’s wild atoms, you would know
That reason’s eyes will never glimpse one spark
Of shining love to mitigate the dark.
Love leads whoever starts along our Way;
The noblest bow to Love, and must obey –
But you, unwilling both to love and tread
The pilgrim’s path, you might as well be dead!
The lover chafes, impatient to depart,
And longs to sacrifice his life and heart.
Translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis