Hafez; the Golden Age of Persian Literature

By De Fouchecour, Charles-Henri | UNESCO Courier, March 1989 | Go to article overview

Hafez; the Golden Age of Persian Literature


De Fouchecour, Charles-Henri, UNESCO Courier


SHAMS od-Din Mohammad (c. 1325-1389), known throughout his life as Hafez, was born and died at Shiraz, Persia, a town he rarely left during a lifetime of over sixty years.

The year 1353 was a milestone in Hafez' life. He was nearly thirty years old and his obvious talent had already earned for him the patronage and protection of the Vizier Qevam od-Din Hassan. In 1353, however, his protector died and was replaced in the seat of power by a certain Mobarez od-Din Mohammad, who imposed a rigorous religious and moral regime that was totally at odds with the lifestyle of many of the citizens of Shiraz. Poems by Hafez and others, ironizing on the tyrant's rigid attitudes, were circulated surreptitiously.

Mohammad's reign lasted eleven years, until the day when his son, Djalal od-Din Shah Shoja, rose up against him and took his place. Shoja was to reign from 1364 to 1384. These were golden years, especially for Persian literature, and it was in this period, when he enjoyed the patronage of the ruler and of court and state functionaries, that Hafez achieved his greatest literary output. It was not long, however, before Hafez fell out of favour again, for a period of some twelve years during which, it appears, he frequented the courts of Ispahan and Yazd.

It remains difficult to establish an accurate chronology of the poems of Hafez on the basis of these facts. The details of the poet's life can only be deduced, and then very summarily, by taking the political life of his period as a starting point and searching in his works for allusions to that life. What else do we know of him? Many legends, but virtually nothing of which we can be certain. In a manner typically Persian, he was very discreet about himself and he may have lived his true life elsewhere than in the court circles in which he earned his living.

Here, for the record, are a few more facts about him. The date of his death, the year 792 of the Hegira (1389 AD), is known to us from the introduction to an anthology of poems by Hafez compiled by an anonymous copyist (later identified as a man called Golandam). There is no indication that he fulfilled any particular function at the court, not even that of poet. Could it be that he worked as a teacher at a Qur'anic school, as his pseudonym Hafez ("he who has learned the Qur'an by heart") has led many to believe? In Tashkent, there is a manuscript copy of the works, in five volumes, of the poet Amir Khosrow Dehlavi (1253-1325) which is signed by Hafez and dated 1355. Perhaps Hafez was himself working as a copyist at that time. One of his ghazals lyric poems of from six to fifteen couplets) laments the death of a child; Hafez, then, like Ferdowsi or Nezami, wept for the death of a dear one.

Although the elements that can be gleaned from the poet's works are insufficient to provide even the skeleton of a blography, it should be noted that, as the British critic G.M. Wickens has pointed out, his Divan is much more directly related than it was once widely thought to the court circles in which the author moved at the time of its composition, and which provided the patronage essential to literary life.

The works of Hafez mark the apogee of the lyric poetry produced by the giants of Persian literature. The borrowings he made from the works of his forerunners are gracefully transformed and exemplify his mastery of the finest figures of the Persian poetic tradition; he conjures with them, turning them upside sidedown and giving them new life. The intellectual skill with which he gives meaning and implosive force to all these figures, simply and as though at play, is such that a hearing of a ghazal by Hafez is an occasion of high rejoicing. Each figure is set within the poem in such a way as to give off an endless series of allusive ripples. Properly to understand Hafez, therefore, we must first place him as a poet.

A ghazal is a poem, that is to say, in the spirit of the time, a formal construction within which a number of propositions can be arranged. …

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