Persian Poetry: Reed’s Tale

A Column

By Mehdi Bagheri

Reed’s Tale

Listen to the reed flute as it tells a tale

For the separations, it complains

Ever since I was cut from the reed-bed 

In my grief, men and women wailed

I sigh for a heart, torn by separation

So I tell the tale’s pain of aspiration

Whoever that’s distanced from home

Will again seek the day of reunion

                – Rumi

                – (Translated by Mehdi Bagheri)

The Reed`s Tale poem, is the first poem in the book of Masnavi, written by Rumi, that holds about 30,000 couplets. Some Rumi Experts, like Dr Soroush, believe that this poem is the precis of all the couplets written in the book of Masnavi. Some others believe, it is the apogee of the ingenuity of mystic and metaphorical expression in Persian Literature. 

In the first four couplets of this poem, Rumi in a mystic tone, speaks about the intrinsic home or in other words the origin of humanity and the emotions that surround us as humans with regards to where we truly come from. In general, home is regarded as the place a person is born. According to Biblical scriptures and Quranic verses, that home was the paradise where God created humans, Adam and Eve. That`s the place they were expelled from after they were tempted to disobey the request of the divine beloved, God.

For us to get a deeper understanding of this poem, we need to analyse the metaphors used in this poem.

The reed flute is one of the oldest musical instruments that humans have been playing for about 5 millennials. It predominantly produces sorrowful tones but only when a flute player breathes out air, into the reed tunnel. The reed flute in Persian is called “Ney” which in literal meaning is a metaphor for inexistence.

Rumi begins the poem by asking his audience to listen to him as he tells a story, in a symbolic way. There are many reasons he chose to use the reed flute as a symbol for himself. As explained above, the tone of “Ney” is predominantly sad and the story that`s about to be told by Rumi is of the same nature. On the other hand, “Ney” means inexistence. So, how are we able to listen to something that doesn`t exist? Here Rumi tries to insinuate a verse of Quran in order to portray himself and his divine beloved in a poetic manner. That verse of the Quran is “And (I) breathed into him, My Soul”. This verse of the Quran speaks about the creation of human being. It is the symbolism of how life was given to humanity as God breathed into him, His Soul. In Rumi`s words “Ney”, on its own, has no sound. It is inexistent until it`s put on the lips of the beloved where the divine`s breath brings it into existence and gives it sound and soul. This is how Rumi explains the relationship between God and human or himself in the most artistic and poetic sense. A theophany in which our existence becomes a proof that there is a divine being who gives us sound and soul yet we cannot thoroughly understand or hear God because our wisdom is limited to a certain point. Same as when the narrow body of the reed flute confines the breath of the flute player and can only grasp this breath up to a certain point. 

In the second hemistich, he complains about separation and in the second couplet he goes on about explaining what he means by it. Here, Rumi personifies separation of the reed from the reed-bed, a place where reeds grow in bunches and unity, dominating marshlands, to separation of humans and their expulsion from paradise to this world we live in today. Like reeds, we were parted from our home and the thought of home and being away from it, brings us grievance and makes other men and women cry because they too can remember, the time we all used to be in paradise close to our divine beloved and now we are on our own, separated from each other and fragile.

In the third couplet, Rumi compares the sorrowful sound that comes out of a reed flute, to sigh of a heartbroken person who has been separated from home and his beloved. A person who at the same time is trying to tell his painful story of desire to be back home in a mystic way that is similar to the musical sound that gets out of a reed flute.

The fourth couplet needs more of a philosophical interpretation. It is human nature to seek reunion with our beloved, in this case, the divine beloved God at a heavenly place, which is believed to be the place we all came from. This reunion is inevitable in a mystic point of view. However, this can happen in two different ways. One is a voluntary reunion in which a mystic person, with morality guidance, goes through the process of self-refinement by observing the truths. The other way is the compulsory reunion that only happens when death arrives. What Rumi tries to say is, to be reunited with your divine beloved while you are still alive is of much more value compared to when you are forced into it.

Credits to Persian lecturers:

Dr Abdolkarim Soroush 

Dr Elahi Ghomshei

Alireza Bagheri