LOOKING BETWEEN THE LINES
The Green Sea of Heaven is for those with an open mind and heart who wish to learn a great deal about the ghazal, an essential part of classical Persian literature and music. In this time when the American propaganda machine is cranking out misinformation and misgivings about Eastern cultures, Gray’s translations go a long way toward bridging gaps between our cultures.
In this time when the American propaganda machine is cranking out misinformation and misgivings about Eastern cultures, Gray’s translations go a long way toward bridging gaps between our cultures.
What led me to reading The Green Sea of Heaven, a collection of ghazal translations from the Díwán of Háfiz, which is to say a collection of Háfiz’s poetry, is a desire to understand what the ghazal “is.” These ghazals of Háfiz are translated to English from Farsi by Elizabeth Gray.
While I had managed to develop an understanding of the technical points of the ghazal, the very few English written ghazals I managed to find did not lend me any sense of what the ghazal actually “is” in a deeper sense. I wanted to understand in my guts why the ghazal became one of the most cherished forms of poetry and song throughout the Eastern cultures. After careful research, I decided on The Green Sea of Heaven as my introduction into the history behind and reason for the ghazal.
Háfiz was a 14th century Persian poet who is more than likely among the originating reasons for the ghazal’s popularity. In some ways, the Díwán of f Háfiz seems to be for the descendants of ancient Persia what the Taoteching is to the modern Chinese. It is a cornerstone of Persian, and indeed even Eastern, literature. The verse of Háfiz offers vivid snapshots into an essential and currently pertinent aspect of our world history.
After reading a few reviews about this book, I decided to purchase it. The reviews I read implied that Gray’s translations were considered the most accurate translations to English of verse from the Díwán of Háfiz. I wanted to absorb the nature of the ghazal in its full historic flavor with the least possible Westernization, or Western minded interpretation. Gray’s translations are precisely what I was looking for.
Heading off the collection are two extremely informative introductions both into the nature of the ghazal as well as the historical setting of Háfiz’s life. For the Western mind, jumping straight into reading the translations before reading these introductions will more than likely completely ruin the experience.
These translations retain remarkably well the original work’s deep immersion within the Eastern mindset and also the context of the tumultuous 14th century Muslim social and religious environment. Gray went out of her way not to temper the English renditions to suit Western paradigms. Reading these well thought out and researched introductions allows the reader to develop a contextual foundation from which to appreciate the ghazals of Háfiz. For example, the first ghazal begins:
O Sákí, bring around the cup of wine and then offer it to me,
for love seemed easy at first, but then grew difficult.
Flooded with their heart’s blood are those who wait for the scent
that the dawn wind may spill from her dark, musky curls.
Stain your prayer mat with wine if the Magus tells you to,
for such a traveler knows the road, and the customs of its stations.
Reading the introduction is essential in grasping that the “stations” in question are those found along a spiritual path.
Gray steps outside the mainstream in her general presentation of poetry, as well. There are no superscript notations within the ghazal translations and there are no distracting footnotes intermixed among the poems. An entirely separate section of the book is dedicated to providing notes for each ghazal, and cross-references between these notes is contained strictly within this realm. Until I came across this book, I had never seen poetry presented this way, and it is a superior method of presentation over any I have been exposed to. Each ghazal translation is presented alongside the original Farsi text. This can be useful even for those who cannot read Farsi in that careful observation of the Farsi reveals the intensely rigid structure of the ghazal.
It is clear that Gray brings over as much of the ghazal form as is possible. Farsi phraseology does not translate well to English. When possible, Gray brings the ghazal’s refrain over, but this is the most complex feat that can be accommodated when translating to English. However, the technical aspects of the ghazal are meaningfully sacrificed for a vivid representation of Háfiz’s words as can be presented in English. In some cases, there is no English equivalent and Gray must use the actual Farsi word. She does so artistically and never fails to offer further information in the endnotes. For example, from the endnotes both Sákí and Magus above are expounded upon as follows:
sáqí. The cupbearer, usually a young man, beautiful and adored, who brings the wine of love to those in the tavern . . . ; also the elusive friend or beloved, a Magian boy . . . , a beautiful and distracting idol . . . .
The Green Sea of Heaven is truly a translation as opposed to an interpretation. I believe that reading this book in full establishes a mindset appreciative of the ghazal itself and an important aspect of its history. At least for me, it was wonderfully enjoyable and enlightening.