Medieval Persian Poet Saadi’s Three Poems
An Oft-Quoted Poet/Philosopher
Considered one of the greatest Persians poets, Saadi was born in modern-day Iran—formerly known as Persia—and lived from 1184 to 1283 AD. From 1195-1226, he engaged in the study of Islamic science and Arabic literature at Nizamiyyah University in Baghdad, Iraq. He traveled widely to many Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel temporarily known as “Palestine.” Saadi’s works have been included in textbooks for school children in the Middle East and even in India and the Balkans for the past 500 years. His works are touted as revealing the Islamic mindset.
In addition to this Persian poet’s poems, Saadi's philosophical quotations are broadly noted, for example, a well-known favorite is, "I fear God, and next to God I chiefly fear him who fears Him not." In Barack Obama’s March 20, 2009 remarks to Iran, the former president quoted Saadi: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.” Obama attempted to add further gravitas to the quotation by adding that he believed the essence of those words “with every fiber of my being.”
Poems with Commentary
Medieval Persian poet, Saadi, whose full name is Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, was a master of the versanelle, portraying colorful imagery, while dramatizing philosophical views, often emphasizing a moral. The following three poems exemplify the philosophical poet’s style and choice of subject.
The Grass of God's Garden
I saw bouquets of fresh roses
Tied upon a cupola of grass.
I asked: "What is despicable grass
To sit also in the line of the roses?"
The grass wept and said: "Hush!
Companionship does not obliterate nobility.
Although I have no beauty, color, and perfume,
Am I not after all the grass of God's garden?
In the first quatrain of his versanelle, "The Grass of God's Garden," Saadi's speaker sees a lush bunch of "fresh roses" on a mound of ordinary grass. The speaker arrogantly questions the propriety of lowly grass having such close congress with the more grandiose flowers. In the second quatrain, the grass answers the supercilious speaker, effectively humbling him in the process. The grass first demands that the speaker stop talking, and then it declaims, "Companionship does not obliterate nobility.” The speaking grass then admits that it has "no beauty, color, and perfume." However, more important than possession of any physical quality, the grass avers, is that its value originates and is sustained by the fact that grass is "of God's garden."
On Friends and Enemies
I am displeased with company of friends
To whom my bad qualities appear to be good.
They fancy my faults are virtues and perfection.
My thorns they believe to be rose and jessamine.
Say. Where is the bold and quick enemy
To make me aware of my defects?
He whose faults are not told him
Ignorantly thinks his defects are virtues.
In his eight-line versanelle, the poet creates a speaker who offers an unusual attitude toward the term "enemy." While the prevailing attitude dictates the avoidance of one's enemies, this speaker has discovered the importance of having someone to can "make [him] aware of [his] defects." The speaker's claims, at first, seem paradoxical, when he says, "I am displeased with the company of friends," but the reason for this displeasure is that to his friends his "bad qualities appear to be good." They even mistakenly accept his "faults as virtues.” The speaker does not want to be told lies about his qualities; he realizes that if he is not aware of his faults, he will not be able to correct them. Therefore, he wants to know, "where is the bold and quick enemy / To make me aware of my defects?"
The ignorant man's best friend is silence,
And were he aware of this he would no longer be ignorant.
When you are not possessed of perfection or excellence,
It is better that you keep your tongue within your mouth.
The tongue brings disgrace upon men.
The nut without a kernel is light in weight.
The beast will not learn from you how to speak;
Learn from the beast how to be silent.
Whoever reflects not before he answers,
Will probably utter inappropriate words.
Either adorn your speech with the intelligence of a man,
Or sit in silence like a dumb animal.
In Saadi's versanelle titled "Silence," the message can be summarized as the often-quoted adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." The speaker determines that, "the ignorant man's best friend is silence.” The philosopher/poet then declares, "When you are not possessed of perfection or excellence, / It is better that you keep your tongue within your mouth." The speaker asserts that man's tongue often brings "disgrace upon men."
The speaker likens talk that is without substance to a "nut without a kernel." Colorfully and scathingly accurate, the speaker notes that a human being cannot teach an animal "to speak," but a human being can learn "how to be silent" from the animal. He cleverly drives the idea home by advising the ignorant to buck up and "[e]ither adorn thy speech with the intelligence of a man, / Or sit in silence like a dumb animal."
Additional Oft-Quoted Wise Words from Saadi
“Whenever you argue with another wiser than yourself in order that others may admire your wisdom, they will discover your ignorance.”
“He who is a slave to his stomach seldom worships God.”
“The best loved by God are those that are rich, yet have the humility of the poor, and those that are poor and have the magnanimity of the rich.”
“The beloved of the Almighty are: the rich who have the humility of the poor, and the poor who have the magnanimity of the rich.”
“Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.”
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes