The Nightingales of Wilde and Hafez

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Oscar Wilde had the collected works of Hafez in his prison library. Hafez, the fourteenth-century Persian poet who wrote ghazals about ecstasy, faith, and love, whether carnal or spiritual. But what did Wilde learn from Hafez?

In “The Rose and the Nightingale,” Wilde tells the story of a philosophy student who wants to give his beloved a red rose, but there are no red roses in his garden. The nightingale begs a tree to give the student a rose, but the tree replies that there is only one way it can produce a red rose: the nightingale must sing all night with her breast against a thorn so that her blood flows into the tree. Ultimately, her sacrifice is in vain. The beloved spurns the gift. The student, who was never a true lover, tosses the rose into the street. The only lover in the story was the nightingale, and she is now dead.

Wilde must have come across numerous references to nightingales and roses in Hafez’s poetry. In Persian tradition, the nightingale takes the rose as his beloved and sings to her. In Farid ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, the nightingale initially refuses to leave his rose to seek the Simorgh. A ghazal in Hafez’s Divan begins with a nightingale nourishing a rose with his blood (though this poem’s translation says “his,” the Persian pronoun has no gender). Other ghazals by Hafez portray the nightingale as the quintessential lover. Did Wilde, like so many others, weep at these verses?

The beloved of the nightingale is not named in Wilde’s story; we know only that she sings of love. She wrongly assumes the student has the same capacity for love that she does. For her, love is more important than life, and she gives her life so that the student’s love can be fulfilled. It is a mercy that she never learns that her sacrifice was in vain. Wilde’s nightingale story, while exquisite, is cynical compared to those of Hafez. That could have been the result of persecution in his life or his sardonic personality.

A subspecies of nightingale that is common in Iran is called Luscinia megarhynchos hafizi. Were these birds named after the poet who described them with such love and delicacy? (I have not found the answer so far, but I hope to one day.) This subspecies is also called Luscinia megarhynchos golzii. Gol is the Persian word for flower or, more specifically, rose. Just a coincidence, or are lover and beloved united at last?

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The Eternal Problem of Colors

This was written from the POV of Vincent Van Gogh, with the help of his letters to get an idea of how he spoke (at least in translation). The title comes directly from one of his letters and the last line was his last words.

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The Eternal Problem of Colors

En plein air
Let’s plant our easels
Together against the wind!
Migrated to the south to find
My Japanese dream in Provence
Raving mad oleanders shadowed by
A funereal cypress under a yellow sky
We mad wretches delight in our eyesight
Play Wagner in Louis XV green and malachite
Wheat fields, golden to red and smelling of thyme
Olive trees shift from silver-grey to blue, now black.
The power to create is greater than my life,
To make my jealous pictures speak!
The night you left is a blank in my mind
All painters are mad but the doctor
Is more ill than the artist.
The sadness will last forever.

Image is Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25498286

Dear Brain

This is from Day 16 of NaPoWriMo, which was supposed to be based on a letter or correspondence.

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Dear Brain

Dear Brain: I’m in such bitter pain
That I don’t know how to go on
Life is no longer worth the strife.
I’ve never seen you in despair, my friend
What is your secret, do share!
With love, Heart

Dear Heart: I don’t want to offend,
But your drama has no end!
Little things push you up and down
As waves manipulate a ship.
No one controls me; I am my own master!
You must be more logical, cool
And you will see it all as trivial.
Come for tea and I will explain.
Regards, Brain

But Brain, what can I do with this agony?
There are so many knives twisted in me
I’ve tried logic; I understand its meaning,
But it doesn’t stop the bleeding.

Heart, don’t you know the knives aren’t real,
Nor the blood? If logic doesn’t work for you,
It means you haven’t understood.

Brain, the knife is a metaphor
But the pain is not; it won’t be ignored
It’s as real as the blood flowing through me
It bites me and then embraces;
My lover and my assassin

See, you’re being dramatic again!
If you’d just stop and think…

But all I’ve done is think!
Do you think I take pleasure in…

Well, maybe you do…

But that’s crazy. And insulting, too!

Come on, Heart! Haven’t you read
Biographies of poets and artists?
Chasing pain to feed the pen
Always looking for trouble, imagine!

But Brain, did they really run after it?
I think sorrow came uninvited
And art was their survival, their Zen!

Well, there you go then.
If logic fails, try art!
(They brought it on themselves
Anyhow, at least in part.)

Brain, I’ll tell you once again
I’m glad to have you as a friend
I will try your advice; let’s see!
(About the artists, we will agree to disagree)

Valentine Laid to Rest

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Found by accident

Carried in your pocket for luck

Kept for convenience

Duplicated for posterity

Installed on your hearth

Where you revered me like an icon

There we remained in safety

Until the bitter day

When you realized your mistake

And cast me in pieces on the shore

To fade and be forgotten

Buried by time and thoughts.

*The painting is Remorse or Sphinx Embedded in the Sand by Salvador Dali