Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi

Hâfiz (sometimes Hafez: c. 1320-1388), the great lyric poet {1} of Iran is famous for his ghazals, {2}{3} poems "of 6 to 15 couplets linked by unity of subject and symbolism rather than by a logical sequence of ideas. Traditionally the ghazal had dealt with love and wine, motifs that, in their association with ecstasy and freedom from restraint, lent themselves naturally to the expression of Sufi ideas. Hafiz's achievement was to give these conventional subjects a freshness and subtlety that completely relieves his poetry of tedious formalism." Only a little is known about the man, who lived quietly as a Koranic teacher in Shiraz, but he may well have been a Sufi mystic, and many readers in fact approach him for his philosophy or spiritual teachings.

khusrau text


Though Hafiz is widely known through books and Internet sites, {4} {5} {6} {7} he "remains the most untranslatable of all Persian poets, because the meaning of his verses is so perfectly molded with the formal expression of the Persian language with its particular prosody, symbolic imagery, and music that it is hardly possible to disentangle the meaning in order to express it in another language and medium." {8}

That melancholy truth is underscored by these four renderings of the first ghazal: snippets as allowed by fair usage under copyright, but arranged in sequence so as to give the whole poem:

1. Ho! O Saki, pass around and offer the bowl:
For love at first appeared easy, but difficulties have occurred.

2. By reason of the perfume of the musk-pod, that, at the end, the breeze displayeth from that forelock,
From the twist of its musky curl, what blood befell the hearts!

3. Stain your prayer mat with wine if the Magus tells you to,
for such a traveller knows the road, and the customs of its stations.

4. What security is there for us here in her caravanserai
when every moment camel bells cry, "Pack up the loads!"? {9}

5. The dark midnight, fearful waves, and the tempestuous whirlpool
How can he know of our state, while ports house his unladen ships.

6. I followed my own path of love, and now I am in bad repute
How can a secret remain veiled, if from every tongue it drips? {10}

7. If you desire presence, Hafiz, do not be absent from him
when you have found the one you desire, leave this world and ignore it. {11}

8. Cupbearer! Take the wine around and let the spirit flow.
Love seemed an easy thing until its crises laid me low.

I hope I shall be forgiven for saying that none of these is any good. Not one is decent verse, and numbers 6 and 8 veer badly from the sense to get the rhyme.

Old Approaches

Most books and sites are the labours of love, renderings of Hâfiz by those who read him in his native Farsi. Translations a century ago tried to convey the effect of Hâfiz through verse that created a similar effect in English. Gertrude Bell's version:

Arise, oh Cup-bearer, rise! and bring
To lips that are thirsting the bowl they praise,
For it seemed that love was an easy thing,
But my feet have fallen on difficult ways.
I have prayed the wind o'er my heart to fling
The fragrance of musk in her hair that sleeps
In the night of her hair-yet no fragrance stays
The tears of my heart's blood my sad heart weeps.

Hear the Tavern-keeper who counsels you:
"With wine, with red wine your prayer carpet dye!"
There was never a traveller like him but knew
The ways of the road and the hostelry.
Where shall I rest, when the still night through,
Beyond thy gateway, oh Heart of my heart,
The bells of the camels lament and cry:
"Bind up thy burden again and depart!"

The waves run high, night is clouded with fears,
And eddying whirlpools clash and roar;
How shall my drowning voice strike their ears
Whose light-freighted vessels have reached the shore?
I sought mine own; the unsparing years
Have brought me mine own, a dishonoured name.
What cloak shall cover my misery o'er
When each jesting mouth has rehearsed my shame!
Oh Hafiz, seeking an end to strife,
Hold fast in thy mind what the wise have writ:
"If at last thou attain the desire of thy life,
Cast the world aside, yea, abandon it!" {6}

The difficulties are these, however:

the Farsi is extremely pithy, allusive and dense with meaning.

allusion is to matters now remote to us in the west.

Hâfiz is both in the world and out of it: many levels of meaning operate together.

Word For Word Translation

Translation fails if it provides only bland renderings in prose or free verse. Out go the interlinked subtlety and musicality, and remaining are only fragmentary comments that do not make much sense. We need to get back to the individual meanings and allusions of words, and so undertake a very literal translation. Because the original:

does not give the short vowels, it is sometimes easier to work from a transliteration (read left to right, the long vowels shown with a circumflex):

1. A-lâ yâ ayyuhâ s-sâqî adir ka'san wa-nâwilhâ
ki 'ishq âsân nimûd avval valî uftâd mushkilhâ

2. Ba-bû-yi nâfa-î k-âkhar sabâ z-ân turra bi-gshâyad
zi tâb-i ja'd-i mishkîn-ash chi khûn âftâd dar dilhâ

3. Ma-ra dar manzil-i jânam chi amn-i 'aysh chûn har dam
jaras faryâd mîdârad ki bar bandîd mahmilhâ

4. Ba-may sajjâda rangîn kun gar-at pîr-i mughân gûyad
ki sâlik bî-khabar na-bvad zi râh rasm-i manzilhâ

5. Shab-i târîk u bîm mawj u girdâbî chunîn hâyil
kujâ dânand hâl-i ma sabuk-bârân-sâhilhâ

6. Hama kâr-am zi khud-kâmî ba-bad-nâmî kishîd âkhar
nihân kî mânad ân râzî k-az-û sâzand mahfilhâ

7. Huzûrî gar hamî khâhî az-û ghâyab ma-shû Hâfiz
matâ mâ talqa man tahwâ da'i d-dunyâ wa ahmilhâ.

Using online dictionaries, {12} supplemented by basic grammars and dictionaries, {13} {14} we get:

1. A-lâayyuhâ s-sâqî adir  ka'sa  wanâwilhâ   Arabic
hoOpass sâqî roundbowl/ cupandbestow  
ki 'ishqâsân nimûdavvalvalîuftâd mushkilhâ  Persian
who what loveeasyseemedfirstbuthappeneddifficulties
2. Ba-bû-yinâfak-âkharsabazânturrabi-gshâyad Persian
atscentmuskofwhichfinallySaba (wind) fromfhat ringletsopened loosed
fromtwist of curlofmusk-curlhiswhatbloodwent inhearts
3. Ma-radar manzil- ijânamchiamn-i'ayshchûnhar damPersian
Mein abode home ofbelovedwhatsecurityofpleasurehow sinceeverymoment
jaras faryâdmîdâradkibarbandîdmahmilhâPersian
camel bell criedagitated trackwholoadbindcamel litters
4. Bamaysajjâdarangînkungar-atpîr-imughângûyadPersian
to withwineprayer-matcolouredlet it beifthouelderoftavernaction of authority
kisâlikbî-khabarna-bvadzi râhurasm-imanzilhâ Persian
whotravellerignorantnothe may befromway andritual custom writingofinn stopping place descending 
5. Shab-itârîkubîm-imawjugirdâbîchunînhâyilPersian
night darkness ofdark obscure deserterandfear terror of waveandwhirlpool abyss vortexin this mannerdreadful
where(they) know conditionof us/ourslightburden-sofshores
6. Hamakâr-amzikhud-kâmîbabadnâmîkishîdâkharPersian
also veryaffair action profession art(I) havefrommyself-aim of gratificationtoillnameledin the end
nihân mânadânrâzîk-atû sâzand mahfilhâ 
concealedwhoremainthatsecretabout which him her he she(they) arrange gatherings assemblies
7. Huzûrî garhamîkhâhîaz-û ghâyibma-shûhâfiz Persian
presence privilege ifpatient /keep-desiringfromhim her absent notbe thou Hâfiz
matâtalqa mantahwâ  da'id-dunyâuahmilhâ  Arabic
whenwe us you have foundwhomyou feel love forleavethe world andignore 

A couple of points:

1. The first and last lines are not Persian but Arabic. The last may be Hafiz's own composition, but the first is a rearranged line from a poem by the Umayyad caliph Yazîd ibn Mu'âwiya. {15}

2. Persian is not a difficult language, but online searchers may wish to save time by first consulting an elementary grammar book and identifying the common prepositions, pronouns and verb endings.


If we now take the couplets in turn:

Couplet One

Theme: Partake of my thoughts.


Ho O pass sâqî round bowl/cup and bestow
what love easy seemed first but happened difficulties.

Suggested translation:

Sâqî : bestow what's in the cup's release:
from days of love, once easy: difficulties.

Notes: Clear enough, but note the word nâwilhâ, commonly translated as offer it or proffer it.  I suspect it means a little more, as the word sets up the couplet rhyme for the Persian and rounds the ghazal off with ahmilhâ: ignore it. Bestow it, I'd suggest, when the poem operates between being in the world (and bestowing experience of it) and of not being in the world, or not in a mundane sense (ignoring it).

Couplet Two

Theme: poetry is a distillation of love and experience.


At scent that musk of which finally Saba-wind from these ringlet loosed
from twist of lustrous of musk-curl-his what blood went in hearts.

Suggested translation:

The loved-one's ringlets in the Saba wind
are full of musk and heart's blood essences.

Notes: There are really three themes here. One is Saba, the east wind traditionally blowing from the women's quarters, bringing desire and hope. The second is the ringlets, a convention signifying separation, as 1. the hair hides the face of the beloved and 2. alludes distantly to women's departure in pre-Muslim Arabic poetry. Hope and separation, echoing love and its difficulties of the first couplet. Third is the musk scent, linked with hope and the smell of the beloved. Musk is prepared from the musk deer, the body of which is roasted, the blood collecting in the navel or pod from which the scent is harvested. Again concentration or essence of something once living: blood to scent, grapes to wine, experience to poetry.

Couplet Three

Theme: Life is a journey rendered precarious by duties and outside events.


Me in abode of beloved what security of pleasure since every moment
camel-bell cried agitated-track when load bind camel-litters

Suggested translation:

What love has sanctuary when the camel-bell
marks out life's burdens and adversities?

Notes: One theme is the precariousness of love, as of life itself, and parallels are often drawn with the caravanserai, well known to English readers in Omar Khayyam:

Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

But authorities disagree on exact interpretation of this stanza. Arberry (1962) believed that the camel-bell warned travellers that their stay is only temporary, and they must soon be quitting this life. The Ottoman commentator Sûdî (1870) was more optimistic: bind on your burdens and join the beloved. Julie Meisami (2003) refers back to early Arabic poetry when bells signified the striking of camp and women folk leaving in camel litters. {16}

I suggest we dwell more on the something being borne onward. The first two couplets constitute the nasîb or introduction, not the trials of love (I think) but what we, or the poet Hâfiz, make of life.

The ghazal was placed, in defiance of the usual alphabetical arrangement, at the beginning of the collection, and will therefore have an introductory purpose. Meisami, in discussing the enigmatic û in couplet 7 (him or her) suggests that Hafiz is referring or dedicating the collection to someone present at his readings. That could well be true, but the 'him', the lover, the initiate at these gatherings, could equally have been the poet's vocation, the personification of time spent away from more orthodox activities. Hâfiz won a reputation beyond his native Shiraz, refusing positions of court poet in Baghdad and India, and may have been a Sufi, but was also a Koranic teacher and a devout Muslim. {17} Religion mattered in a way now difficult for the west to understand, and departures from orthodoxy were serious concerns. Gertrude Bell drew attention to one striking feature of the poet's work:

"Through all these changes of fortune, Hafiz appears to have played the prudent, if rather unromantic part of the Vicar of Bray. . . During his lifetime the city that he loved, perhaps as dearly as Dante loved Florence, was besieged and taken five or six times; it changed hands even more often. It was drenched with blood by one conqueror, filled with revelry by a second, and subjected to the hard rule of asceticism by a third. One after another Hafiz saw kings and princes rise into power and vanish "like snow upon the desert's dusty face." Pitiful tragedies, great rejoicings, the fall of kingdoms, and the clash of battle-all these he must have seen and heard. But what echo of them is there in his poems? Almost none." {6}

Hâfiz was not particularly otherworldly, and may have been Sufi, orthodox Muslim and man of the world all in one — i.e. the poetry kept him from deciding. Couplet three starts the rahîl or middle section of the ghazal, and extends the earlier themes: the noise, confusion and insecurity of the world outside the charmed circle of composition, whether that be in solitude or in the friendly competition of poetry gatherings. The beloved then is his poetry. The difficulties mentioned in couplet one are the irruptions of horror and disorder into the tranquility needed to compose something of significance and beauty though a terrible period in Persia's history: civil wars, executions and wholesale butchery.

If that is kept in mind, then it is the competition from mîdârad, the 'agitated track' of outside duties and interruptions, that I suspect Hâfiz is developing over the remainder of the rahîl.

Couplet Four

Theme: Listen to the inner voice.


With wine prayer-mat coloured let it be if thou elder of tavern action of authority
who traveller ignorant not he may be from way and custom of stopping places

Suggested translation:

The wine on prayer-rug are elder's words,
as are the stopping places authorities.

Notes: The ghazal traditionally celebrates love and wine, and wine here discolours the prayer-mat. Drinking, anyway forbidden Muslims, inebriates and distorts the teachings of orthodoxy. We don't have to read the couplet as a concordance to Sufi mysticism — elder for spiritual guide, tavern for Sufi circle etc. — to realize that Hâfiz is arguing that the deep reflection necessary for poetry brings its own authority.

Couplet Five

Theme: Reflection is not easy.


Night of dark fear of and wave and whirlpool in this manner dreadful
where know condition of us light burdens of shores

Suggested translation:

Who safe on land, light-burdened, looks for fears
in whirlpool, wave or night's obscurities?

Notes: The Arabs were great traders, and the perils of sea voyages became stock properties in the later poetry of the Muslim world. But here the imagery is put to subtler use. Just as travel enlarges the mind, so inward reflection shows the poet a world of more generous if darker proportions. Hâfiz often sings of the pleasures of peace — rose-gardens, nightingales, etc. — but he is far from closing his mind to the terrors outside. A key phrase is sabuk-bârân, light burdens. Bârân, formed of bâr with the suffix ân denoting plural has a host of meanings: burden, load, baggage, a heavy grief, fetus, blossoms, foundation, entrance, greatness, etc. Bârân also means rain, and barân, without the first alef, means 'on that they are agreed'. So what is Hâfiz intending? Possibly that the knowledge of these terrors also brings its recompense in greater understanding, the theme of the whole poem.

Couplet Six

Theme: Simplifying life and art leads to misunderstandings.


very art have from myself aim of gratification to ill name led in the end
concealed who remain that secret about which him/her they arrange gatherings

Suggested translation:

All moves from art have only darkened what
in names are gatherings of mysteries.

Notes: The couplet completes the travel theme — 'led in the end' — but is perplexing. Most translations speak of self-indulgence leading to ill repute, and then ask how a secret can remain concealed when gatherings are held about it. But what self-indulgence, what secret, and what gatherings exactly? Meisami believes that the lines refer not only to drinking parties and charges of libertinism, but to Hâfiz's speaking of love's name in public. {18} But perhaps the secret is the poetry for which gatherings are arranged, and it is the gratification of this that has led the difficulties referred to in the opening couplet and discussed under Couplet Three. Kâr means not only affair but action, profession, art, etc. Perhaps there was some personal indiscretion, but the poet may also be complaining that simplistic interpretations of his work have led to charges of heresy.

Couplet Seven

Theme: Hâfiz will continue his inner journey: you can accompany him by reading this dîvân.


privilege if am desiring from him/her absent not be thou Hâfiz
when you have found those you feel love for leave the world and ignore it.

Suggested translation:

Be never absent from your love, Hâfiz,
but, having found it, leave the world in peace.

Notes: Here the ghazal closes, as usual, in the takhallus or self-naming device, which serves to complete the theme and distance the poet from his creation. Hâfiz has not made the case for his work or life, but simply laid out the themes he will develop in the dîvân that follows. But what exactly does he mean by ahmilhâ, ignore? Ignore what? Sûdî suggests wealth and worldly connections, for the sake of peace and tranquility. {19} For the sake of poetry, I'd suggest, the poetry being the distillation of experience and reflection, just as musk is a distillation of blood. The attractions of the world outside are real, and Hâfiz often lingers on them. E.G. Browne: {20}

"That many of the odes are to be taken in a symbolic and mystical sense few will deny; that others mean what they say, and celebrate a beauty not celestial and a wine not allegorical can hardly be questioned; that the spiritual and the material should, as Shah Shuja complained, be thus mingled will not surprise any one who understands the character, psychology and Weltanschauung of the people of Persia, where it is common enough to meet with persons who in the course of a single day will alternately present themselves as pious Muslims, heedless libertines, confirmed sceptics and mystical pantheists, or even incarnations of the Deity. The student of Hafiz who cannot decide for himself which verses are to be taken literally and which symbolically is hardly likely to gain much from a commentator who invariably repeats that Wine means Spiritual Ecstasy, the Tavern the Sufi Monastery, the Magian elder the Spiritual Guide, and so forth."

Perhaps, in fact, without these outside attractions, there is no poetry, only colourless theology, and it is the poet's task to bring experience and belief together in his fragile creations. Some of these attractions keep Hâfiz away from his beloved — the difficulties he warns of in this introduction to his collection — and test his affections, but the ending is a tentative affirmation of the world in an inward and perhaps larger sense. The concluding Arabic ahmilhâ (ignore the world) refers us back to the Arabic nâwilhâ (bestow it) of the first line: these distilled reflections are what Hâfiz offers us in his dîvân, an oscillation between love and doubt, between the world as men describe it and as the poet sees it: a way of happening, a mouth, as a later poet wrote.


Interpretation is discussed more in the second Hâfiz translation, but suggested translations have tried to:

represent in pregnant phrases what we understand of the poem.

convey the gnomic nature of the original with a free word order.

reproduce some of the vowl and consonant patterning ( H ama k âr- am zi khud- k âmî ba- bad-n âmî kishîd âkh ar) etc.

respect the xx, ax bx cx etc. couplet form.

Adding the lines together we get:

Ghazal One

Sâqî : bestow what's in the cup's release:
from days of love, once easy: difficulties.

The loved-one's ringlets in the Saba wind
are full of musk and heart's blood essences.

What love has sanctuary when the camel-bell
marks out life's burdens and adversities?

The wine on prayer-rug are elder's words,
as are the stopping places' authorities.

Who safe on land, light-burdened, looks for fears
in whirlpool, wave or night's obscurities?

All moves from art have only darkened what
in names are gatherings of mysteries.

Be never absent from your love, Hâfiz,
but, having found it, leave the world in peace.

And perhaps making a little more sense:

Ghazal One

Sâqî : pour for us the cup's release:
for love, once easy, brought on difficulties.

The loved-one's ringlets in the Saba wind
unloose the musk of heart-blood's essences.

What love has sanctuary when camel-bell
rings out life's burdens and adversities?

The wine on prayer-rug and wise men's words
reveal in taverns their authorities.

Who safe on land, light-burdened, looks for threat
of wave or whirlpool in obscurities?

My art has ended as a name in doubt:
we hear in gatherings but mysteries.

Be never absent from your love, Hâfiz,
but, having found it, leave the world in peace.

I wouldn't say this was intoxicating verse, but it does respect the form and meaning of the original.


1. S. H. Nasr, and J. Matini, "17 Persian Literature," in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, (New York: Crossroad, 1987).
2. Annemarie Schimmel, A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry (Chapel Hill: Univ. North Carolina Press. 1992). Much useful material from a noted Sufi scholar.
3. Teachings of Hafez: Translated by Gertrude Lowthian Bell. 1897. text. Translator's Preface.
4. The Hafez Poems of Gertrude Bell: With the Original Persian on the Facing Page. Gertrude Lowthian Bell. (Ibex Publishers. 1995)
5. Life and poetry of Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi. Shahriar Shahriari. 2003. Very rich site, with texts, translations and links.
6. The Songs of Hafiz. Biography, articles, poems and ghazal renderings by twelve translators.
7. Hafez Books from Amazon. Some twelve books of Hafiz and his teachings.
8. S. H. Nasr, and J. Matini, "17 Persian Literature," in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 342.
9. Gray, E. The Green Sea of Heaven. (White Cloud Press, 1995). site
10. Shahriar Shahriari. 2003t. site
11. Julie Scott Meisami, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry: Orient Pearls (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003). More the specialist's book, with references to recent scholarship.
12. Digital Dictionaries of South Asia. Steingass online: includes literary Persian and common Arabic words: fascinating but more cumbersome to use.
13. A.K.S. Lambton, Persian Grammar Including Key (CUP, 1953, 1979). A solid textbook, though a summary vocabulary and verb etc. tables would be helpful.
14. F. Steingass, A Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary: Being Johnson and Richardson's Persian, Arabic and English dictionary. Revised, enlarged and entirely reconstructed by F. Steingass (Asian Educational Services, 2003).
15. Meisami 2003, 418.
16. Verse XVII of Edward Fitzgeralds' Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam.
17. Meisami 2003, 420-421.
18. Meisami 2003, 425.
19. Meisami 2003, 426.
20. E.G. Browne, Literary History of Persia (Munshiram Manoharlal, 1902-24/1997), III, 271-293