Noah Schiller: Three Rumi Poems

The first poem I have selected to analyze is The Qazvin Softie Who Wanted a Tattoo. I found this poem both humorous and insightful. The poem is about a man from a town called Qazvin who asks his barber to tattoo a lion across his shoulder blades. However, whenever the barber begins his work, the man yelps in pain and requests that his barber to “Leave that bit out, for it’s of no avail.”1 It is silly that the man is so upset by the pain caused by the tattoo since he must have had some sort of inkling that it wouldn’t be a painless procedure, and then sillier when he decides not to bear with it but to eliminate each part of the lion which causes him pain, as if they next part would be any different. The conclusion we come to is that the man, upon his rejection of what he must go through to achieve the beauty he so desires, is under the delusion that the process requires no challenge and that he is unprepared for such an endeavor. I see the process and pain the man must go through to get the tattoo in his story as a metaphor for the Sufi path, that the path is painful, challenging, and requires one to surrender themselves and accept the hardship they must go through to achieve the state of enlightenment they so desire. Rumi touches on this in the end of the poem when the barber says: “Brother, you have to bear the needle’s pain To flee your infidel self’s poisonous reign”, by which he means, the Sufi aspirant must endure the pain of their path and their trials to rid themselves of Godlessness.2 Later in the poem Rumi writes, “What can men learn about God’s being one? To burn themselves in Him just like the sun! If like the day you wish to shine so bright, Burn up your being, for that’s like the night. . . you’ve clung fast to the self of ‘I’ and ‘you’ Although all wretchedness stems from these two.”3 Just as the man must endure the pain of the tattoo to complete the lion on his back, to be close to God one must burn one’s self in his presence; pain is a necessary aspect of letting go of the self and getting closer to God.

The second poem I chose is the Exordium: the song of the reed, which I interpret as being about Rumi’s relationship and yearning for his master, The poem is considerably more abstract than the poem about the man from Qazvin, and deals with love and yearning, and the expression of these feelings through the song of the reed. I think the poem is about Shams because several of the lines in the first section, “Now listen to this reed-flute’s deep lament About the heartache being apart has meant. . . A breast which separation’s split in two Is what I seek, to share this pain with you. . .”, both of which deal with his pain caused by his separation from a loved one.4 Then there are the passages, “That we were friends each one was satisfied But none sought out my secrets from inside; my deepest secret’s in this song I wail But eyes and ears can’t penetrate the veil”, which I interpret to be about how Rumi was happy when he was with Shams but that no one attempted to understand their relationship for what it really was, since his followers thought Shams was a bad influence. The second half of the quote is about how in this song he’s writing he will reveal the secret he learned from his time with Shams, but it cannot be understood with eyes and ears because it is not a worldly message to be interpreted with the senses but with the heart or the soul. This analysis is reinforced in the lines, “The reed consoles those forced to be apart, Its notes will lift the veil upon your heart”, which mean, by writing this song he’s addressing his own yearning for Shams, and that the song addresses the heart, not the eyes or ears as he mentioned before. Another prominent theme in the poem, related to the reed’s effect on the heart rather than the senses, is the enlightened caused by the intoxication of love. He speaks of this in the lines, “Love’s fire is what makes every reed-flute pine; Love’s fervor thus lends potency to wine. . . The few who hear the truths the reed has sung Have lost their wits so they can speak this tongue.”5 Here he relates the fire of love both to the intoxication caused by wine and the song of the reed, and that if one properly embodies this love and hears the truth in the reed, they have lost their minds in this intoxication. In this way, Rumi is speaking of how spiritual truths cannot be comprehended by the rational mind, but must be felt intensely and irrationally, like love and intoxication.

The third poem I have chosen is A snake-catcher steals a snake from another snake-catcher. This is a short poem with a potent message. In it a man steals a snake from its owner and is promptly killed by the bite of the snake. The owner, who was angry about the theft a minute before, becomes relieved with the knowledge that, had he attempted to recover his snake, he would have been bitten and killed by his own property.6 Rumi uses this story to rely the Sufi idea that being greedy and hoarding many things can often lead to one’s demise rather than one’s good fortune. Since the snake would’ve killed its owner, the owner learnt that sometimes to lose property is actually to gain something more valuable, in this case, his own life.

  1. 1Rumi. The Masnavi. Translated by Jawid Mojaddedi. Vol. 1. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.), 184.

2Ibid.

3Ibid, 185.

4Ibid, 4.

5Ibid, 5.

  1. 6Rumi. The Masnavi. Translated by Jawid Mojaddedi. Vol. 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.), 11.