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Selections from Shaykh Sa`dī
Rhyme and Reason
John Bowen


All night he wept unceasingly beside

His friend, who lay inert upon the bed;

At dawn they found that he who watched had died,

And lo! The sick man had been cured instead.





A willow-branch reminds one that a youth

Can easily be bent towards the Truth;

Old reprobates a sterner fate require,

For they will straighten only in the fire.





Observe this precept whenever you can –

Never make friends with an elephant-man;

For an elephant-man has a pet to keep,

Eating and drinking, awake or asleep,

And if you are friendly one day you’ll see,

When the elephant-keeper comes to tea,

That, not in the least by chance or whim,

The elephant will accompany him.

Then as soon as the animals’ through the door

You’ll notice cracks in the parlour floor,


And however much you may frown or stare

He’ll sit across-legged on an easy chair,

And swill your tea with his cumbrous trunk

Till you think ‘My Word, what a lot he’s drunk.’

And if you should offer a mild reproof

He’ll be up from your table and off with your roof…

In your sorrows you’ll only sink deeper and deeper

If you ever make friends with an elephant-keeper.





When choosing a mount

For a race or a hunt,

Or to ride at the Front,

Remember fat cattle

Get blown in a battle;

But a lean stringy horse

Will stand up round a Course,

And will never give in –

Although he’s too thin

You can back him to win.





The Bull to the Donkey one day said in jest:

‘Do you think that your ears or my horns are the best?’

The Ass to this sally replied: ‘Since a child

My friends have described me as humble and mild,

But if I had horns ’twould no longer be true –

And I shudder to think what would happen to you.’





Gold can glitter strangely

When hewn in some deep mine;

Gold can buy you many things


Including warmth and wine;

But anyone amassing it

In honesty must own

There’s hardly any difference

’Twixt a nugget and a stone.





Whose wife is tender, wise, and true

In fact, Beloved, just like you,

Although he merits no such thing

Will live, as I do, like a King.





Aggrieved because I had no shoes

I shuffled down the street,

Till someone cried: ‘There stumping goes

A man who has no feet.’

Then was I instantly aware

That I from pain was free,

And thanked God, the Compassionate,

for all He’d given me.





Although the sun shines bright,

Though nothing stirs in sight,

When traversing the desert

Do not forget your gun.

Although the plain stretched wide,

Good men before have died,

Who failed to see a leopard

Curled sleeping in the sun.




Live always by your own unflinching toil;

Dig deep, and sow and seed; do all you can

To pay the debt you owe your country’s soil –

Then you need not depend on any man.





A King who has no aptitude for war,

And finds the bred of idleness too sweet,

Is like a Pedagogue who hears afar

His pupils playing leapfrog in the street.





When raindrops from the heavens fall,

Tenderly and slow,

They nourish garden lawns – and make

The desert thistles grow.





The eyes o’erflow for what they most desire,

Whereas my heart is scorched by passion’s fire;

Both ways afflicted, whither can I turn?

In floods I perish, or in flames I burn.





When pure souls from their earthly bondage fly

It matters not whereon their bodies lie,

On throne or floor;

For God is merciful – He ne’er forsakes

The true in heart; and to His Kingdom takes

The meek, the poor.




Straightforwardness becomes a man

As snow becomes a mountain,

Or as becomes the hush at dawn

The music of a fountain.

No man has ever yet got lost

Who in his heart would say:

‘In God alone I put my trust –

He maketh straight the way’.





O Nightingale, we bid you sing

Of Youth, and Hope, and Beauty,

As if to chant the praise of Spring

Were your appointed duty;

Too soon the Owl of Death will come

With sudden haunting cry,

Too soon we each must seek our home

In the cold earth to lie.





Patience, the lover cried,

A faded mantle wears;

Patience, the exile sighed,

Is bitter as our tears;

Sour is its root

Sa‘di to them replied –

But lo! How sweet the fruit

At last it bears.





(Extracted from ‘Poems from the Persian’)


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