The Ruins of the Heart – trans. Edmund Helminski

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Mevlána Jeláluddin Rúmi, the great Islamic mystic, was born in 1207 in Persia, present-day Afghanistan. His peregrinations eventually landed him in Konya, Turkey, where he stayed and developed the ecstatic contemplation of the Beloved that found expression in countless luminous poems and utterances. His poetry has been translated into Victorian verse and contemporary quatrains but, no matter the language, Rúmi’s message, delivered from the heart, touches the heart.

Edmund Helminski translates a few of Rúmi’s verses into contemporary idiom in the slim volume The Ruins of the Heart.

          In this house of mud and water

          my heart has fallen into ruins.

          Enter this house, my Love, or let me leave.

Rúmi was a highly educated philosopher dedicated to the sublime experience of pure love. His work was informed by Plato, the Koran, Aesop’s fables, the works of Jesus, Buddha and the whole rich tapestry of world spiritual utterances embodied in the Persian culture of his time. Perhaps that is the secret to his widespread appeal. His ideas have influenced Chaucer, Goethe and Emerson, according to Helminsky, and I have half a shelf of various translations of Rúmi by different contemporary scholars and poets.

But the other undeniable attraction is his utter abandonment to ecstasy. Rúmi intended to become love, to lose himself and his identity in bliss. For a time, the object of his rapture was the nomad Shams of  Tabriz. Shams became for him the incarnation of perfect love and, even after Shams was murdered, or disappeared, Rúmi’s poetry concretized his stunning experience of dissolution into bliss. Those words were never meant to track a love affair, they are a universal expression of love, longing and transcendence.

          This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,

          to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.

          First, to let go of life.

          Finally, to take a step without feet.

          To regard this world as invisible,

          and to disregard what appears to the self.

          Heart, I said, what a gift it has been

          to enter this circle of lovers,

          to see beyond seeing itself…

The Inquisition had Europe in its blazing grip as Rúmi spun poetry and danced with deliberate abandon in Konya. Genghis Khan was pillaging and annexing all of the East. The codification of heresies, the auto-da-fé and torture were spelled out in the halls of the Vatican. Cathar towns and populations were exterminated. Mystics and metaphysicians were at work in Bhagdad, in Egypt, in Delhi. There was a great foment of ideas, benign and malign. And in its midst, a bard of uncommon and enduring talent.

We might actually study Rúmi now to learn what can exist in a realm without drones and Kalishnikovs and thinking so dull and muddy it breeds only misery and destruction. Rúmi’s world was real and fractured but his vision was lucid and enlightened.

          What shall I do, O Muslims?

          I do not recognize myself…

          I am neither Christian nor Jew,

          nor Magian, nor Muslim.

          I am not of the East, nor the West,

          not of the land, nor the sea.

          I am not from nature’s mine,

          nor from the circling stars…

          Oh Shams of Tabriz, I am so drunk in the world

          that except for revelry and intoxication

         I have no tale to tell.


The Ruins of the Heart   Jelaluddin Rumi (translator: Edmund Helminski) | Threshold Books   1981

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6 responses »

  1. Another wonderful Urdu/Persian poet is Ghalib, who used a poetic form called the Ghazal – couplets complete in themselves, but taken together forming a kind of mystical journey. The themes are love and its delights and torments – all deeply personal and highly concentrated.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I will hunt for Ghalib–I’ve been a Rumi fan for a long time, more for the transcendent nature of his poetry than the romance of it. Even in translation, the lines are beautiful so I might really enjoy another Persian poet.

    • If you would like to dip a toe or foot – or more in the water, Frances Pritchett of Columbia University is the best resource I have found. She has several web pages on Ghalib’s work.

    • Ghalib’s loves are intensely human whereas Rumi’s are mystical. Also the object of Rumi’s affections is male, whereas Ghalib’s is female. I have a pronounced preference for the human, because there for me there is a kind of tragic dignity in mortality and human limitation and the human condition – particularly when one is acutely aware of it and there is no pretense or presumption about it.

    • Rumi’s mysticism is appealing for the translucence of its language, although I can’t read it in the original so I am relying on the many beautiful translations. I don’t actually read it as a record of a particular love affair so the male-male thing is irrelevant to me. Sometimes a plain old love affair is too tied to the corporal–at least in poetry. But there are gorgeous Chinese poems about loves and losses that transcend their moment and become timeless–maybe Ghalib will have that effect for me.

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