Sweet Sorrows: Selected Poems of Sheikh Farideddin Attar Neyshaboori
Renditions by Vraje Abramian
Publisher: Chino Valley AZ: Hohm Press, 2013; 1-935387-42-1
Sweet Sorrows presents a rich selection of poems, sayings, and brief stories by the Persian Sufi poet Attar (c.1119-c.1221 CE). Attar, literally meaning perfumer or herbalist, was the pen name of Abu Hamed Mohammad ebn Ibrahim, also known as Farideddin Attar. Although Attar is one of the most famous figures in Persian literature, little is known of his life. He expressed his deep mystical insights in poetry and allegorical tales which have been revered by subsequent generations of Sufis. As translator Vraje Abramian puts it, Attar’s “word has nourished generations of people on the Path.” Rumi wrote:
The seven cities of love Attar traversed,
the corner of the first valley we have yet to turn.
Attar, Abramian says, “never tires of pointing out to the individual that in the midst of the uncertainty and the baffling apparent chaos of material existence, the only refuge and happiness is to seek our Essence, the Ultimate Treasure in us, which is independent of time and space and never succumbs to the degeneration and degradation matter, by nature, is heir to.” Attar addresses his message to all humanity. Speaking to the Ultimate Beloved, he writes:
Every particle in creation
turns to You in adoration;
every human in prayers faces in Your direction.
Whether they know it or not, creatures in both worlds
eternally long to return to Your fold.
In truth, none other than You can ever be loved,
it’s only in remembrance of You that others are loved.
The ‘sorrow’ referred to in the title of this book is longing for union with the Divine, the yearning that rankles in the hearts of spiritual seekers. Attar describes the “sweet sorrow of missing the Beloved” as a treasure:
This sweet sorrow granted at love’s door
is the true treasure buried in our soul—
a particle of it will bestow upon you more
than the two worlds could ever hope for.
One bereft of this pain can hope for no cure.
It is a sorrow that is uniquely ‘sweet’ because it leads to ‘release and true delight.’ Attar hints that something like a fragrance emanates from the heart of one who experiences this ‘sweet sorrow.’ For the person who lacks this experience, even smelling the fragrance of another person’s longing will uplift him.
If this sorrow enters your heart for a moment
you will surrender both worlds.
If you could smell this pain, even in another heart,
you would find release and true delight
all through your days and your nights.
Attar tells us that this pain has a secret purpose. The sufferer calls out to his Beloved,
“Why this suffering and pain,
this burning despair?” I asked.
“I have you here believing that you exist
to thus give you a taste
of being separated from Me,” said the Beloved.
Believing we exist, we feel we are separated; through longing we erase our self and unite with the Infinite.
The cure for this pain of longing is yet more longing.
Lovers drink a thousand oceans
and still burn with thirst.
When Attar is completely erased of himself
a tiny particle of his soul contains the nine spheres.
Sweet Sorrows presents writings selected from several of Attar’s best-known works: Asrar-nameh (The Book of Mysteries), The Divan of Attar, Elahee-nameh (The Book of the Beloved), Mokhtar-nameh (The Book of the Sovereign), Moseebat-nameh (The Book of Travails), and Tazkirat al-Oliya (Biography of the Saints). The full citation for each selection is given at the back of the book.
These writings are varied. Among them are wise sayings, such as, “Greed is—to pile up that mountain under which you’ll be buried.” And also brief stories, such as one about a poor gardener who brought three cucumbers to the vizier as precious gifts. The vizier ate all three gratefully and gave the man thirty gold sovereigns. Only after the gardener had left did he admit, “Those were bitter, very harshly bitter, and should anyone have mentioned a word, it would have broken the poor man’s heart. Mind me not, good gentlemen, for I could not see him shamed.” Attar then comments, “On the Day of Judgment, nothing carries more weight than forbearing kindness to all of God’s creatures.”
While the 350 verses and prose passages that form the main collection in this book follow an order that is loosely thematic, using material from all of the above sources, the author also offers as an appendix a selection of verses solely from Moseebat-nameh. Moseebat-nameh is an allegorical tale depicting the journey of the seeker as he meets challenges and experiences various encounters, turning always to the guidance of his Pir (spiritual master), until “the final merging of the individuated consciousness into Consciousness, the drop in The Ocean.” Of this spiritual journey Attar warns:
Perilous and long is the journey,
and we are like unto the blind.
Should you attempt this without a guide,
You will, if yourself be a lion, fall in a well and be left behind.
In the Introduction Abramian provides background about Sufism, the mystical tradition within Islam, as a context for understanding Attar’s writings. He explains that it has long been a practice among Sufi brotherhoods to recite mystical poetry, sometimes with musical accompaniment, in gatherings where “these words serve as portals into domains where human consciousness embarks on journeys beyond the realm of words.”
O companions come
let’s speak about our secret
about this ancient heartache.
Like strings on a harp
every vein in my body sings of this love.
I would say so much more
but this pain refuses to be spoken of.
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