EMERSON, RALPH WALDO, distinguished American transcendentalist, philosopher, and poet (b. 25 May 1803, Boston, Mass.; d. 27 April 1882, Concord). Only two other major Western authors have contributed as much to the cultivation of Persian poetry as Emerson: Goethe (q.v.) in the early years of the 19th century and Edward FitzGerald (q.v.) in the later years. Equally notable has been the reverse influence exerted by Persian poets upon Emerson’s own work. His sources were almost exclusively two books by the German author Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall: Der Diwan von Mohammed Schemseddin Hafiz (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1812-13) and Geschichte der schönen Redekünste Persiens (Vienna, 1818). It is likely that Emerson’s attention was directed to these two books by Goethe’s use of them to produce his own West-ostlicher Diwan.

The names of the poets Ḥāfeẓ and Saʿdī appear on Emerson’s 1841 reading list and frequently thereafter in his journals and notebooks. Oliver Wendell Holmes counted twenty-five and thirty references, respectively, to these two poets, the former as often as Aristotle or Wordsworth, the latter as frequently as Montaigne. Emerson’s first volume of poems (1847) included two translations from Ḥāfeẓ, one of them excerpted from his longest poem, the “Sāqī-nāma.” Several more such translations from Ḥāfeẓ were published in The Liberty Bell in 1851. Emerson’s lengthy essay on Persian poetry for the Atlantic Monthly of 1858 fairly equably surveyed the entire range of Persian poetry, and with marvelous intuition prophesied a future European fame for ʿOmar Ḵayyām a year before FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat made its barely noticed appearance.

Altogether, Emerson translated about 700 lines of Persian poetry, not including prose paraphrases scattered throughout his Journals and Works. Since his command of the German language was imperfect, he occasionally mistranslated (e.g., rendering a declarative mode as an interrogative). At least once he introduced an idea from von Hammer’s commentary to eke out his translation. His renditions were initially verbatim but were frequently followed by freer adaptations that modified the meter, added rhyme, stanzaic pattern, or blended lines from two different ḡazals (see, e.g., Yohannan, January 1943, pp. 407-20).

It is understandable that early commentators on Emerson as poet believed he had learned his art from his Persian readings. But what W. S. Kennedy called the “Persian order tinge” might better be called Persian/German, for it was in part shaped by the German word and sentence structure that his translations followed. The pregnant individual lines (or, as Emerson liked to call them, “lustres”) were what counted. In a lecture to an English audience, Emerson said: “The expressiveness which is the essence of the poetic element, they [the British] have not. It was no Oxonian but Hafiz who said, ‘Let us be crowned with roses, let us drink wine, and break up the tiresome old roof of heaven into new forms” (a reference to the following verse: Bīā tā gol bar-afšānīm o mey dar sāḡar andāzīm, Falak-rā saqf beškāfīm o ṭarḥ-e now dar-andāzīm; Works V, p. 258).

Emerson rejected the Sufistic view of Ḥāfeẓ’s wine, stating that he would not “strew sugar on bottled spiders,” that is, “make mystical divinity out of . . . the erotic and bachanalian songs of Hafiz” (Emerson, Works VIII, p. 249). But he insisted that “the love of wine is not to be confounded with vulgar debauch.” It was a spiritual carpe diem that the anacreontic verses of Ḥāfeẓ denoted for him. Wine stands for a mind-expanding power that replaces despair with ecstasy.

There are two poems by Emerson entitled “Bacchus,” one complete, the other unfinished. Both so closely resemble Emerson’s first published translation from Ḥāfeẓ’s "Sāqī-nāma" that he was obliged to tell Elizabeth Hoar that his completed “Bacchus” was not a translation from Ḥāfeẓ. Emerson’s editors regard the incomplete “Bacchus” as a translation. In the present author’s opinion it is an original, though imitative, poem by Emerson (Yohannan, March 1943, p. 29).

The influence of Ḥāfeẓ on Emerson’s poetic thought and practice is so pronounced that he might as well have titled his poem “Ḥāfeẓ” rather than “Saadi.” In part this is due to the fact that he composed the poem “Saadi” before he had made the full acquaintance of Ḥāfeẓ. Moreover, he had already drawn the chief lineaments of his ideal or Orphic poet in the early essay “Nature.” As Emerson got to know the historical Saʿdī better, he took pains to distinguish him from his fellow Shirazi; yet both poets made their contribution to his image of the ideal. For example, a Journals passage describes an unidentified poet engaged in the business of “extracting honor from scamps, temperance from sots, energy from beggars, justice from thieves, benevolence from misers [and] elegance of manners hidden in the peasant, heartwarming expansion, grand surprises of sentiment, in these unchallenged, uncultivated men . . .” (Emerson, Journals VII, p. 182). Surely this is a truer picture of the engaged, peripatetic Saʿdī than of the introverted stay-at-home Ḥāfeẓ. Another Journals entry notes that “the human race is interested in Saʿdī [who] is the poet of friendship, of love, of heroism, self-devotion, bounty, serenity, and the divine Providence” (X, p. 562). These are the prime concerns of Saʿdī’s most famous works, the Būstān and the Golestān (qq.v.). In his 1865 preface to a reissue of Gladwin’s translation of the Golestān, Emerson made clear that “though he has not the lyric flights of Ḥāfīẓ, [Saʿdī] has wit, practical sense, and just moral sentiments” (Gladwin, 2nd ed., Boston, 1884, p. vii).

On the other hand, these lines from “The Poet” clearly delineate Ḥāfeẓ’s preference for the esthetic over the ethical: “He sowed the sun and moon for seeds . . . / But oh, to see his solar eyes / Like Meteors which chose their way /And rived the dark like a new day! / Not lazy grazing on all they saw, / Each chimney-pot and village picket-fence, / But, feeding on magnificence, / They bounded to the horizon’s edge / And searched with the sun’s privilege” (Works IX, pp. 310-11). These lines are simply an echo of what Emerson said elsewhere about Ḥāfeẓ: “He is restless, inquisitive, thousand-eyed, insatiable and as like a nightingale intoxicated with his own music; never was the privilege of poetry more haughtily used.” (Works VII, p. 417). What might be regarded as the last words on the matter are these verses: “A commandment,” said the smiling Muse, / I give my darling son, Thou shalt not preach”; / Luther, Fox, Behmen, Swedenborg, grew pale, / And on the instant, rosier clouds upbore / Hafiz and Shakespeare with their shining choirs (Works IX, p. 297).

And yet, these were not the last words, for the preacher in Emerson would not be completely suppressed. In several late Journals entries he allowed himself to say that “the panegyricks of Hafiz, addressed to his Shahs and Agas show poetry, but they show deficient civilization.” Even when he admired Ḥāfeẓ’s “habit of playing with all magnitudes,” he could not resist the footnote: “I do not know, but the sad realist has an equal or better content in keeping his hard nut” (Journals IX, p. 145; X, p. 167). Both Ḥāfeẓ and Saʿdī would be granted the status of culture heroes for the American Transcendentalist movement.



G. W. Allen, Waldo Emerson, Penguin Books, 1981.

F. I. Carpenter, Emerson and Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1930.

Idem, Emerson Handbook, New York, 1953.

A. Christy, The Orient in American Transcendentalism, New York, 1963.

R. W. Emerson, The Complete Works, ed. E. W. Emerson, 12 vols., Boston, 1903-4.

Idem, The Journals, ed. E. W. Emerson, 10 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1909-14.

Idem, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, ed. W. H. Gilliam et al., 14 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1960-78.

Idem, The Poetry Notebooks, ed. H. Orth et al., New York, 1986.

R. L. Rusk, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 6 vols., New York, 1939.

Idem, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York, 1949.

J. D. Yohannan, “Emerson’s Translations of Persian Poetry from German Sources,” American Literature 14/4, January 1943, pp. 407-420.

Idem, “The Influence of Persian Poetry upon Emerson’s Work,” American Literature 15/1, March 1943, pp. 25-41.

Idem, Persian Poetry in England and America: A Two Hundred Year History, Persian Studies Series 3, Delmar, N.Y, 1977, chap. 12 and Appendix a.

(John D. Yohannan)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: December 15, 2011

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