By Mehdi Bagheri
Bitter Wine and the Sweet Lips
If it is for the sip of wine that the ruby of your lips looks red
Why is it that your lips taste sweet but the wine is bitter
If the houri`s seat is under the Toobaa’s shade
How is it that houris seat under the shade of your Toobaa
My face is not the sky, but then why like the sky
The falling tears by the dark manifests the Pleiades
As eyes envisioned you, I said Wow, you tall cypress
Oh curse those eyes that are short-sighted
Being in thought of an idol with tulip-like cheeks is what I deserve
As it makes my days, nights, months, Aries all year long
– By Qa`ani (19th Century)
– Translated by Mehdi Bagheri
Having spent this week in the city of Shiraz, the capital of culture and literature in Iran, I decided to introduce Mirza Habibollah Shirazi, also known as Qa`ani, to our readers for this second column of Persian poetry in this edition.
The 19th-century poet has over 20,000 lines of classical Persian poetry to his name and his most famous book was named “Parishaan” or “dishevelled” as for its translation in English. He was also fluent in English, French and Arabic literature which at that time showed a very high level of literacy in the country.
In this piece, Qa`ani expertly uses allegory and belletristic contrast throughout the entire poem. In the beginning part, he displays the originality of beauties of the person he loves, in form of rhetorically asking questions, that answers to them, are the exact opposite of what’s expected to be heard.
In the first two lines, he describes his lover’s lips colour as ruby, a beautiful and valuable stone. That colour, however, is not drawn on her lips because of sipping on the red wine. Why? Because as he says her lips taste sweet but the wine tastes bitter. He indicates there is no makeup, no mask and that shows the originality of face which in the Persian culture is of high value. Also, the glass of wine in Persian poetry at times is referred to the lover’s lips for which tasting it can make one drunk, lose control or in other words fall in love.
In the second two lines, he refers to his love as Houri. Houris in Islamic literature is referred to the most beautiful women in heaven that will greet the men who did good deeds during their lifetime. Toobaa is referred to a tall tree in heaven that houris rest under its shade. Although the poet initially calls his lover the Houri and speaks about her deserved place in the heaven, however, he then calls her the Toobaa of heaven in a praising tone in order to describe her tall height which is a symbol of beauty amongst Persians. This resembles culmination of parables.
Later, the poet uses the dark, tears and Pleiades as an example of his dishevelled face. The Pleiades is a conspicuous cluster of stars in the constellation of Taurus that includes six stars in the form of a very small dipper that at times looks like a drop or tear.
The poet also praises her height another time but in a different way and curses those who cannot see how beautifully tall she stands.
The masterstroke of this poem comes in the last two lines. The poet humbly shows his euphoria by speaking about what results in being in the thought of his beautiful idol. In Islamic synesis, an idol is a person or an object that’s praised instead of God. God stands above all but now the poet substitutes God with his love. The feeling of love here is then described in a different way.
In Iran, the zodiac sign Aries is associated with the start of spring. That, in Persian literature, makes one think of the start of life, the sign of youth, falling in love and the season of mating. What he is trying to say here is, being in the thought of his love, at any moment in time, is what keeps him young, energetic and joyous and that’s the best that one can have.
It is throughout the poem that you find Qa`ani giving value to his love by comparing her characteristics to the most valuable things that come to mind. However, it is right after these comparisons that he raises her again to the peak of beauty and might, like one that God possesses.