In 1244, a wandering dervish, known to posterity as Shams of Tabriz, arrived in Konya (in modern Turkey) and was promptly embraced by the community's spiritual leader, Jelaluddin Rumi, as the perfect Sufi master--the human image of the Divine Beloved--for whom he had been waiting. Up till then, write co-translators John Moyne and Coleman Barks in their terse but telling introduction, Rumi, at 37, had been "a fairly traditional mystic, one of a long line of scholars and theologians." Shams, at about age 60, "literally took Rumi's books, his intellectual brilliance, and threw them into a well to show him how he needed to live what he'd been teaching."
Rumi's followers were not pleased. Threatened by this close, absorbing relationship--which involved "weeklong periods of sohbet , mystical conversation and merging"--they drove Shams off to Damascus, and when Shams returned, they apparently murdered him.
The year of Shams' disappearance is not stated. However, R. A. Nicholson, another translator of Rumi's works, specifies it as 1247. During this three-year period under Shams' influence, Rumi developed into, as Nicholson puts it, "the greatest mystical poet of Persia."
He also became one of the most prolific. The standard Tehran edition of Rumi's "Kullivat" or Complete Works comes to eight volumes. Included in this are the later "Masnavi" or Mystical Tales, comprising six books of rhyming couplets, and the earlier "Divan of Shams-i Tabriz" of the period mentioned, consisting of about 2,500 mystical odes, plus an indeterminate number of "Rubaiyat" or Quatrains, of which--according to the late A. J. Arberry, another translator and Cambridge scholar--about 1,600 are authentic.
Of this vast collection of quatrains contained in the "Divan" or Collected Poems, a mere 166 appear, unnumbered and unsequentially arranged, in this slim volume. Can such a select sampling adequately reflect that which is contained in the much larger original?
"Rumi's Rubaiyat," as the translators explain, "is improvised music" made up of "spontaneous fragments." The connection between the poems is not "linear" or even readily "explainable." Rather, in them, Rumi's ideas "grow, circulate, and clarify as they take on, and explore, various images."
This, essentially, is what these versions offer, flavored "with a strong American line of free-verse spiritual poetry," in the vein of "Whitman, Roethke, Snyder, James Wright." The result, inevitably, is a tilt toward modernity.
More to the point, however, is the "excitement" captured in these short utterances, which, in their sum, form "a unique record of the union of lover and beloved, soul and spirit."
Rumi, in all his writings, was inspired by the "love" of a spiritual mentor. What distinguishes the poems of the "Divan" is that, in them, Rumi became the other. Rumi the poet was not Rumi the teacher, but literally the voice of the absent Shams. Hence, the title of the work in Persian; hence, too, the poems' innate sense of "unity," which derives from not "structural arrangement" but the very thing that is celebrated: the union of the lovers:
"Every promise I made before
I broke when I first saw you . . .
"Inside you I rest from wanting."
In that knowledge, Rumi finds his mission as a poet:
"My work is to carry this love
as comfort for those who long for you."
Love for the "absent" Shams is thus transmuted into love for the Divine Beloved.
The major translations of Rumi's works--the greater odes and tales--remain those by Nicholson and Arberry. Yet it is also good to have the appealing "Rubaiyat" available in such a compact version. This is the second collaborative effort by Moyne, a scholar of Persian at the City University of New York, and Barks, a poet who teaches at the University of Georgia. Their first version of Rumi's poems, "Open Secrets" (Threshold Books, 1984), received the Writer's Choice award of the Pushcart Foundation.