The Nightingale

by Farid ud-Din Attar

English version by Raficq Abdulla
Original Language Persian/Farsi

The nightingale raises his head, drugged with passion,
Pouring the oil of earthly love in such a fashion
That the other birds shaded with his song, grow mute.
The leaping mysteries of his melodies are acute.
'I know the secrets of Love, I am their piper,'
He sings, 'I seek a David with broken heart to decipher
Their plaintive barbs, I inspire the yearning flute,
The daemon of the plucked conversation of the lute.
The roses are dissolved into fragrance by my song,
Hearts are torn with its sobbing tone, broken along
The fault lines of longing filled with desire's wrong.
My music is like the sky's black ocean, I steal
The listener's reason, the world becomes the seal
Of dreams for chosen lovers, where only the rose
Is certain. I cannot go further, I am lame, and expose
My anchored soul to the divine Way.
My love for the rose is sufficient, I shall stay
In the vicinity of its petalled image, I need
No more, it blooms for me the rose, my seed.
The hoopoe replies: 'You love the rose without thought.
Nightingale, your foolish song is caught
By the rose's thorns, it is a passing thing.
Velvet petal, perfume's repose bring
You pleasure, yes, but sorrow too
For the rose's beauty is shallow: few
Escape winter's frost. To seek the Way
Release yourself from this love that lasts a day.
The bud nurtures its own demise as day nurtures night.
Groom yourself, pluck the deadly rose from your sight.

-- from The Conference of the Birds: The Selected Sufi Poetry of Farid ud-Din Attar, Translated by Raficq Abdulla

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Throughout the Middle East and India the nightingale is associated with lovers and with longing. The bird's song is plaintive, longing, yet beautifully entrancing. And it sings at twilight, the meeting time of secret lovers. Yet, like the Mediterranean tradition of Eros, the nightingale can symbolize both mundane romantic desire and also the sacred yearning of the soul for the Divine Beloved.

In Attar's masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, each bird represents a soul or soul-quality that aspires to journey toward God (the Simurgh), yet the birds must overcome their weaknesses and limitations. Here, the nightingale, longing, is at first so attached to worldly beauty and love that it hesitates, saying, "I cannot go further, I am lame, and expose / My anchored soul to the divine Way. / My love for the rose is sufficient, I shall stay..." The purity of its longing, even for worldly experiences of beauty, has granted it a sort of limited mystical realization, and it is on the verge giving up its quest for deeper realization.

But the hoopoe (the spiritual guide) chides the nightingale, saying that such worldly attraction "is a passing thing," that it brings "pleasure, yes, but sorrow too / For the rose's beauty is shallow... To seek the Way / Release yourself from this love that lasts a day." Attar (through the words of the hoopoe) is reminding us to not become attached to outer forms, to not fall in love with "shallow" experiences of beauty. Instead, one must seek the eternal source of beauty, not its shifting surface shimmerings.



Recommended Books: Farid ud-Din Attar

Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems The Conference of the Birds
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The Nightingale