It is an unusual experience to read the mystical poems of the thirteenth-century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi. I am — sitting in this park in Chicago, June 2016, a presidential election woefully underway, the sound of a siren and a boombox in the background, advertisements for technical athletic shoes flashing on my phone — a profoundly modern, Western reader. My knowledge of Sufism is cursory at best — I’m more inclined to know Madonna’s reading of Rumi (complete with El Cristo Redentor in the background, sure, why not), to have blasted Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from my dorm room windows, or to have seen the Whirling Dervishes in a five minute segment — mixed in with scenes from Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Wailing Wall, and other holy sites — from Baraka, which came free with my DVD player (to be fair, I’ve also seen Whirling Dervishes live, and it is a sublime experience).
There is so much in reading Rumi that confounds. His poems are largely improvised, sometimes puzzlingly opaque, and sometimes, in the end, just too distant for a twentieth-century secular reader. Which all only makes sense: his poems are written out of a liturgical Islamic tradition, concerning thirteenth-century life and philosophy, and meant as texts that are supposed to challenge readers into new consciousness.
But that’s precisely the point. Read in great, long stretches — especially outdoors — Rumi’s work has a churning, cumulative effect, not unlike the gyres that so often expose themselves in his metaphysics. He is a romantic in the biggest of ways, always seeking the unity of the beloved, and it is this romance, this endless reliance on love, the rose gardens of the heart sweet with perfume, which has likely drawn so many readers from so many places across so many times.
Rumi is also an ecstatic, and it puts him, for me, in a long and varied web of ecstatic poets, ranging from Rumi himself to Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson to Tomaž Šalamun (for whom I have previously offered what I am about to offer here). Rumi has an especially vast sense of scale, relating the dance of motes in the light of a window to the spinning of planets and stars — and we find in his verse the profound unity of all the elements of the universe. It’s remarkably prescient given that he was writing centuries before optics would give us access to the cosmic and microscopic worlds that we have taken for granted as facets of our understanding.
Flowering atop these visionary, scalar structures — thrust with the energy of the beloved — are some of Rumi’s most peculiar moments, and let me say right now that it is unfair to extract these moments from the poems that surround them. But that’s what I’ve done, as a provoking primer, a temptation to the deeper, studied experience of Rumi that really allows these boundaries of his vision to glow. Some of the moments below — this love list of lines — explode with the combustion of the creation of the universe, and others ponder in near silence, but I hope you will see in all of these the resonant understanding that comes with the most enraptured experiences we can have.
The following selections come from A. J. Arberry’s translations found in Mystical Poems of Rumi (University of Chicago Press, 2009). The numerical identifiers reference this volume.
- In separation, the lover is like a name empty of meaning; but a meaning such as belovedness has no need of names. (8)
- Several verses still remain, but this fountain has sunk into the ground; that will bubble up from the fountain when we leap up tomorrow. (22)
- Just as the water relates about the stars and the moon, even so the physical forms relate about intellect and spirit. (28)
- Be silent, and sit down, for you are drunk, and this is the edge of the roof. (45)
- Has perchance the dawn breeze lifted the veil from His face? For thousands of unseen moons have begun to shine. (49)
- The thunder beats its drum; particle and whole have become alive; the scent of spring is wafting in the twig’s heart and the marrow of the rose. (67)
- Every man is amazed at something; my amazement is, how it is that when He enters the midst, He is not contained in the midst. (100)
- The spirit beholds a thousand marvelous forms and shapes, when sleep excises from it the image of the world. (123)
- I was a lamp, and every head of mine was as a wick; sparks flew on every side. (139)
- Loftier than all is our inward concert, our particles dancing therein with a hundred kinds of glory and pride. (152)
- Enter my eye and behold me with my own sight, for I have chosen a dwelling place beyond all sight. (168)
- I was dead, I became alive; I was weeping, I became laughing; the power of love came, and I became everlasting power. (170)
- When the thunder and lightning laugh, I recite paens of praise, I am full of light as the clear sky, I am circling around the moon. (175)
- As fish in the time of silence we are silent, in the time of speech we are the dustless moon. (187)
- The sugarbed of your phantom brings rose-sugar to me; in the garden of realities I scatter the rose of a hundred petals. (199)
- The star goes to graze in the pasture of the skies; the animal worships earth, like cypress and jasmine. (247)
- Every star became a Venus, every mote a sun, sun and stars before them spinning like motes. (288)
- The sand has become satiated with the water; I have not become, bravo! No string in this world is there to fit my long bow. (316)
- The flame of your soul is trembling at the cold wind of death; it would not be trembling if it had borrowed fire from immortality. (334)
- All the parts of the world are lovers, and every part of the universe is drunk with encounter. (342)
- I was a worthless and valueless piece of iron; you polished me, made me a mirror. (343)
- Even if you know the water of life, how shall you choose aught but the fire of love? (353)
- Go, nimble-rising soul go on a strange journey to the sea of meanings, for you are a precious pearl. (370)
- We are naught in his love, dust at the foot of his love; we are love fold upon fold we are all love, nothing else. (380)
- Leap, leap like a meteor to slay the dīv, when you leap out of stardom, you will be the pole of heaven. (400)
Image: Detail of 1663 Indian miniature from Rumi’s “Masnavī’.” Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.