Poetic forms know no cultural or linguistic barriers. Thus there are not only rhymes and meters, but also odes and sonnets, elegies and story-poems  in English and French, in German and Italian and more. Likewise, one can find ghazals in many languages: not just in Arabic and Persian where they originated, but in Turkish and Urdu, even in Bengali and Gujarati.

Ghazals are poetic forms cast in a strict pattern, usually expressing a longing for lost or separated love, and extolling the greatness of love. It is a poetic-spiritual sublimation of the emotion of intense loss and unreachability, the kind of romantic fantasy in words and music that is virtually impossible in a world where physical proximity and carnal intimacy are all to easily available; even as writing an endearing  billet-doux and waiting impatiently for a reply via a posted letter have become passé in this age of e-mail and twitter.

Some mystical poets also wrote ghazals. The thirteenth century Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi is the most famous of them all in the Western world. Here is one of his ghazals, tranalted by Jack Marshall:

You who are not kept anxiously awake for love’s sake, sleep on.

In restless search for that river, we hurry along;

   you whose heart such anxiety has not disturbed, sleep on.

Love’s place is out beyond the many separate sects;

   since you love choosing and excluding, sleep on.

Love’s dawn cup is our sunrise, his dusk our supper;

   you whose longing is for sweets and whose passion

                                       is for supper, sleep on.

In search of the philosopher’s stone, we are melting like copper;

   you whose philosopher’s stone is cushion and pillow, sleep on.

I have abandoned hope for my brain and head; you who wish for

   a clear head and fresh brain, sleep on.

I have torn speech like a tattered robe and let words go;

   you who are still dressed in your clothes, sleep on.

In Hindi-Urdu speaking India, the best known poet of this genre is Mirza Ghalib (1797 – 1869).

Friedrich Rückert (1788 – 1866) was a professor of Oriental Languages who is said to have written more poems than anybody in his native German in his century. He was also a versatile linguist who studied many languages, including Sanskrit, Persian, Chinese, Arabic. He was the first to present German translations of gazals (1821). He was followed by Count August von Platen (1796 –n 1835) who also published many gazals. The great German poet was somewhat critical of his attempts and sarcastically noted that there was the risk of “eating too much from the fuit of the Garden of Shiraz and vomiting up ghazals.” [Calvin Thomas, A History of German Literature].

July 17, 2011

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