Common sense is probably the last thing we want or expect from poets. Give us confessions, prophecies, manifestos, but spare us the advice — especially advice in verse.
The poet should be a firebrand, not some mumbling old uncle. And yet, it wasn't always thus. In older cultures, not only in Greece and Rome but in India, Persia, and China, the poet was often seen less as a visionary than as a dispenser of wisdom.
This wasn't usually lofty wisdom; it was homespun, practical, and shrewd. It taught its readers how to live. And because it was cast in verse, its rhythms reinforced its hold; it stuck in the mind like a tune. It was common sense made musical.
Unlike his great contemporary Rumi, the medieval Persian poet Sa'di isn't much known in the West.
The first English translation of his masterpiece, the "Gulistan," or "Rose Garden," appeared in 1775; another version, by Francis Gladwin, was published in 1806 and went through no fewer than five editions. But these were trots, useful for civil servants and employees, such as Gladwin, of the British East India Company: Persian was the language of the Mughal court, and along with Urdu or Hindi, it was important for representatives of the Raj to try to learn.
And Sa'di was by common consent the most elegant stylist in Persian. His "Rose Garden," a unique compendium of terse proverbs and worldly-wise fables, of exquisite lyrics and earthy anecdotes, became their textbook.
In "The Gulistan (Rose Garden) of Sa'di: Bilingual English and Persian Edition with Vocabulary" (Ibex, 448 pages, $60), Wheeler Thackston, a professor of Persian at Harvard, has assembled all the materials needed for a fresh appreciation of this curious masterpiece.
These include a straightforward translation (with the Persian text on facing pages), a glossary of Sa'di's Persian, a useful bibliography, and a short but detailed introduction. For all its obvious erudition — and usefulness to students of Persian — this isn't just a work for the specialist. Mr. Thackston clearly loves his poet and wants to bring him, two centuries after Gladwin's attempt, to new readers.
Sa'di is no Rumi. He prefers contentment to ecstasy. He's a bit like the chameleon whose eyes can look in two separate directions at once. If one eye is cocked at the afterlife, the other is firmly focused on this life. That second eye is the stronger of the two. Sa'di's "Rose Garden" is populated with surly saints and intimidating kings, with farting merchants and love-struck magistrates. In one tale, a tyrant asks a hermit which act of religious devotion would be best for him to perform, and the hermit replies, "For you, it would be to sleep at noon so that during that one moment you won't vex the people." In another, a king swindles his poorer subjects out of firewood, which he then gives to the rich in a show of generosity. When his own house burns down, the king sits in the ashes and asks where the fire came from. A passerby replies, "It came from the hearts of the poor." This is a rose garden with as many thorns as blossoms.
The book is divided into eight chapters which range over such subjects as the conduct of kings, the character of dervishes, the "benefits of silence," and the effects of education; a chapter on love is followed by one on the feebleness of old age, and the book concludes with a discourse on the art of conversation. What unites these scattered chapters is a single unspoken concern: survival in a world that's not only hostile but deceptive. In the "Rose Garden," nothing is what it appears to be. Here a king ends up in heaven while a dervish roasts in hell. Why? Sa'di explains, "The king is in paradise because of his devotion to dervishes, and the hermit is in hell because of his attachment to kings."
Sa'di's verse passages are in rhyming couplets, a form that Mr. Thackston finds "hopelessly old-fashioned" in English, and he makes no attempt to render them. That is probably just as well. Another Persian scholar, the late A.J. Arberry, did try this once and saddled Sa'di with lines such as "The sheep is neat and clean; the elephant a mass obscene." By contrast, Mr. Thackston's translations of the poetry capture its hard-bitten wisdom accurately enough but give little sense of its beauty.
Sa'di had good reason to prize common sense. The "Rose Garden" appeared in 1258, when he was turning 50. That was the same year in which the Mongols under the dread Hulagu Khan overran the Islamic world, sacking Baghdad, murdering the last caliph, and bringing the 500-year-old Abbasid dynasty to an end.
Though Sa'di himself — and his native city of Shiraz — remained unscathed, he had no illusions about the permanence of anything. He chose the rose garden just because of its fragility. As he said, once turned into words, "this garden is always fresh."
[Picture: Shelf Life; The back cover of Herman Melville's copy of 'The Gulistan, or, Rose-garden.' Photo from: Beinecke Rare Book And Manuscript Library, Yale University / The Sun].