By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, who is popularly known simply as Rumi (1207-73), is one of the most popular poets in the world. Eight centuries after he lived and wrote, his words continue to strike a chord with readers from many countries who enjoy his works in numerous languages.
Part of the appeal is doubtless that, as well as being a poet, Rumi was also a mystic, belonging to the Sufi tradition in Islam. He wrote in Persian but also Turkish, Arabic, and even (at times) Greek, so even in his own day, there was something universal and even cosmopolitan about Rumi’s wisdom and ideas.
At the same time, there is something strikingly modern about Rumi: read a modern English translation of this medieval mystic and you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading a contemporary poem, written in free verse, unrhymed, and utilising unusual and instantly memorable imagery. Rumi was at once medieval and modern, in this sense: as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, we might say that Rumi was ‘not of an age, but for all time’.
But what are Rumi’s best poems? He was a prolific poet: even the indispensable Selected Poems, published by Penguin, is over 300 pages where most poets’ ‘selected’ poems would be nearer half that. Below, we select and introduce ten of Rumi’s finest, best-known, and most insightful poems, providing links to the full texts (in English translations).
A note on titles: Rumi’s poems never originally carried titles, but over the centuries, many of his poems have attracted titles, often based on the first lines or on the core themes of the poem in question.
1. ‘Unfold Your Own Myth’.
‘Who gets up early
to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms …’
This poem has a clever structure. Rumi begins by offering several examples of men – from Christian and Islamic texts – who made important discoveries. For example, when Solomon cut open a fish, he discovered a gold ring inside.
But once he has considered these various stories involving other men, Rumi admonishes us not to be content with other people’s stories, but to unfold our own story or myth. It may not be easy at first: in making this journey of self-discovery, you will become weary and tired. But then suddenly, you’ll make a breakthrough, and it’ll be as though you can fly away.
2. ‘I Am Thine and Thou Art Mine’.
‘Eternal Life is gained
by utter abandonment of one’s own life …’
This is one of the shortest of Rumi’s best poems. The ‘Thou’ whom he addresses is God, so this appears to be a love poem but is actually a poem of spiritual love and mutual devotion.
Indeed, Rumi uses the idea of the passionate lover as a metaphor for God’s committed disciple here, and there is a sense of reciprocity between God and the poet, the poet and God.
3. ‘A Great Wagon’.
‘Inside your face the ancient manuscripts
Seem like rusty mirrors …’
This poem contains some very striking and unusual imagery, as the excerpt we’ve quoted above demonstrates (the writing on the paper puts the poet in mind of the rusty scratches on a mirror, but this simile is itself part of a description of the lover’s face).
The poem unfolds a number of delicate and easily visualised images for the lover, and is among the most tender and passionate of love poems (and poems of seduction).
4. ‘Love Sounds the Music of the Spheres’.
‘The world is God’s pure mirror clear,
To eyes when free from clouds within …’
Much of Rumi’s poetry is about love and about God. These two things are not mutually exclusive in his work, as this popular poem demonstrates.
Love is here figured as a way to come to God, but although Rumi is thinking of religious devotion, his reference to ‘love’ here appears to encompass other kinds of devotion, too: romantic love can also be a way to reach God, a form of worship.
5. ‘The Flame of Love’.
‘A burning heart is what I want …’
In this short lyric, Rumi privileges the burning passion of intense desire over the value of thought or words. Yes: even words can fail, and there’s a time to talk (and to write poems) and a time to succumb to ardent romantic and even sensual desire.
6. ‘The Gifts of the Beloved’.
‘He takes a few drops of your tears,
And gives you the Divine Fount sweeter than sugar …’
Here’s one of Rumi’s best-known religious poems, which begins with an arresting rhetorical question: where will you find someone more liberal than God?
The poet then goes on to list all of the things which God does for the individual – including giving us all a ‘kingdom’ beyond our wildest dreams.
7. ‘A Prayer’.
‘May God have mercy on those who lead the way
and those who come behind and those who fulfill their vows …’
It should come as no surprise that such a religious poet as Rumi wrote prayers, too. And in this short prayer, the poet makes a simple but effective argument: be good to God, and God will be good to you. Show mercy, and God will have mercy upon you.
8. ‘Thou and I’.
‘Joyful the moment when we sat in the bower, Thou and I;
In two forms and with two faces – with one soul, Thou and I …’
A garden, birdsong, and a feeling that one will live forever: what better way to convey the joyous paradise that is new love?
Here, the stars in heaven come out so they can look at the two lovers, rather than so that the lovers can look up at the stars. Love makes us feel ten feet tall and immortal, as though the whole world had been designed with us in mind. This poem gives voice to this feeling of elation.
9. ‘Passion Makes the Old Medicine New’.
‘Passion is the elixir that renews …’
We cannot be weary when we have passion. Even the most wearied soul will find itself renewed by the magical ‘elixir’ that is passion: sensual desire and powerful feelings of love. Instead of complaining that we are fatigued, we should seek passion as the ultimate pick-me-up …
10. ‘The Guest House’.
‘This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival …’
Let’s conclude this pick of Rumi’s best poems with one of his best-known poems: ‘The Guest House’. Rumi uses the metaphor of the human being as a kind of ‘guest house’, which every day must accept new arrivals: joy, meanness, melancholy, and so on.
Rumi’s lesson is that we should welcome and entertain all of these unexpected guests, for they all serve a purpose. Even a flurry of sorrows may arrive with a purpose: to clear us out ready for the arrival of happiness the following day …