Gertrude Bell and Hafiz.
Admist all her influential activities in the Arabic world for which she is primarily and rightly remembered Gertrude Bell also compiled one of the early English translations of the Sufi poet Hafiz, who along with Rumi have recently become popularised in the West. On the poetry of Hafiz, Bell wrote:
‘These are the utterances of a great poet, the imaginative interpreter of the heart of man;
they are not of one age, or of another, but for all time’
Gertrude Bell (1)
Hafiz is renowned as one of the most celebrated Persian poets. Living in the 14th Century, Hafiz was frequently persecuted for his disregard for the religious and political orthodoxy. People read different things into his poetry but he was unequivocal in his denunciation of religious rituals that were devoid of spiritual intensity. He also wrote extensively on the theme of love, both human and divine, alluding to the ecstasy of mystical union with the Divine.
In depicting the intensity of love, Gertrude Bell thought Hafiz comparable to the West’s own Shakespeare.
‘My weary heart eternal silence keeps–
I know not who has slipped into my heart;
Though I am silent, one within me weeps.
My soul shall rend the painted veil apart.’
– Hafiz (2)
“I have estimated the influence of Reason upon Love
and found that it is like that of a raindrop upon the ocean,
which makes one little mark upon the water’s face and disappears.”
– Hafiz (3)
Ironically in the Victorian age a prevalent view of Islam was that it was a religion of great liberalism, even licentiousness. This was because the great Sufi poets such as Hafiz and Omar Khayyam expressed passionate love for their beloved and used terminology such as being in ‘drunk with the wine’ In fact these were mere allegories of Divine love. Wine was a symbol of the divine ecstasy. A Tavern was the place of worship. Although Bell felt Hafiz was not only writing about mystical experiences she was able to interpret this unusual language and terms of the Sufi’s and offer a sympathetic translation. This shows Bell’s natural sympathy with a foreign culture and is an indication of how she was able to transcend her very British Victorian upbringing to immerse herself in a completely foreign culture. – Even a century later there are few western women who have been able to integrate so closely with the Arabic culture and people. A rare occurrence in Victorian Britain, and even rarer for a women to assimilate another very male dominated culture.
(1) Lady That Hast my HeartGertrude Bell
(2) Gertrude Bell – Teachings of Hafiz at Sacred Texts
For a number of years I have studied mystical and sacred poetry developing a website Poet Seers. This is how I first came across Gertrude Bell, I assumed that translating the poetry of Hafiz must have been her life’s work. It was only when I discovered she attended my own college Lady Margaret Hall that I looked into her life’s history and was fascinated to see her catalogue of achievements.