“To Baron von Hammer Purgstall, who died in Vienna in 1856, we owe our best knowledge of the Persians,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson (d. 1882) in his essay “Persian Poetry.” Thus, it was an Austrian Orientalist who introduced Saadi (d. 1292) and his poetry to Emerson in the mid-1840s. Although Emerson read only a translation (which is inevitably deficient in comparison to the original), the intricate poetry of this 13th-century Persian became one of the major oriental influences on Emerson’s work.
Even though the dominant figure in “Persian Poetry” is Hafiz (Saadi is mentioned only once), Emerson showed quite clearly his admiration for Saadi in the Preface he wrote for the American edition of Gulistan (1865). In addition to this, he also wrote a poem entitled “Saadi” (1899) in which we can read the poetic similarities between Emerson and Saadi, or what was the distinguishing quality of the latter that proved such a powerful inspiration for Emerson.
Emerson seems to appreciate Saadi’s “wit, practical sense, and just moral judgments,” which are shown throughout his most famous work Gulistan, a collection of stories in prose and verse combined whereby each story appears to stand on its own; however, each chapter has its own topic, which also provides a connection between the given stories. In Sufi poetry, gul (or the rose) is one of the central motifs. Every rose represents the glory of God, and every rose is perfect in its own sense.
The stories are mostly comprised of Saadi’s personal experiences on his numerous travels, and this is one of the aspects of Saadi’s poetry which could have been attractive to Emerson, especially because it is congruent with Emerson’s own philosophy, “Only so much do I know as I have lived.”
Saadi frequently uses natural images to describe a situation or to wrap up a story. He wrote, for example:
A flower is sometimes blooming and sometimes withering.
A tree is at times nude and at times clothed.
Saadi uses these images to portray the “wheel of destiny,” and these two verses (bayts) are also a magnificently concise summary of the preceding story about a beggar turned emperor. Natural images of this kind are the core of Emerson’s poetic theory as he considered nature to be “the symbol of spirit.” Therefore, he praises Saadi as the great observer of nature:
In his every syllable
Lurketh Nature veritable.
That is, Saadi is able to interpret the natural facts and extract their essence which opens the door of the world of Ideas, as Plato would call it, or Nature, as Emerson would call it. Therefore, we are closer to ourselves, and the understanding of ourselves, if we observe the other constituents of the physical world, because we are all essentially connected.
The poem “Saadi” by Emerson begins with a list of natural facts and among the birds and sheep are also men; however, the poet is in a way above them all, because he is endowed with the poetic gift (“the lyre”) and instructed by God to “sit aloof” in order to observe. A poet, although part of nature, still has an additional responsibility to interpret what he sees and use it for his own advancement and the advancement of “his folk.” The poet should be a “Man Thinking,” as Emerson calls the upgraded version of a man, who is able to decode the natural facts; he should refer to the “mind of the past” and undertake action in an attempt to “guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances” – and Saadi is exactly that. He learned from what he had seen and experienced, and he composed a guide of a sort for everyone who reads it, implying, however, that this guide is not universal and that it is written by a life experience and literary experience of only one man. It is very difficult to bear in mind all the wise words from Gulistan, unless a previous experience is triggered by them.
However, for Emerson, the individual is the one who can improve and not the society: he says that he “like[s] man, but not men” and that “[s]ociety never advances.” He was in love with the unbound possibilities of an individual, not with a rather fragile sense of belonging to a particular group. But does this make the notion of social action superfluous? We can make use of one of Saadi’s stories to answer this question. In the section “The Morals of Dervishes,” Saadi talks of his experience in a mosque where he was giving a lecture to a group of people “whose hearts were withered and dead.” However, one man was passing by and he caught some of Saadi’s words, which left a deep impression on him. Thus, Saadi said:
When the hearer understands not the meaning of words
Do not look for the effect of the orator’s force
But raise an extensive field of desire
That the eloquent man may strike the ball of effect.
The aim of a poet is not a radical change in society, but rather a change in a man’s heart. Therefore, in the light of these words, Emerson’s statements seem reconciled: the poet should compose verses based on his knowledge and experience, hoping to be of use to men; but only certain individuals among the group will be able to understand and learn from it.
Having all this in mind, we can see how close two poets can be irrespective of the time gap and distance between them. Emerson states in the Preface to Gulistan:
But the Sheik’s mantle sits loosely on Saadi’s shoulders, and I find in him pure theism. He asserts the universality of moral laws, and the perpetual retributions. He celebrates the omnipotence of a virtuous soul.
Emerson had a lot in common with Saadi on an intellectual level, and what truly attracted his attention and admiration was the humanity in Saadi’s poetry. Throughout Gulistan we encounter all sorts of people, but Saadi tries to understand the state of each and every one of them, be they poor or rich, ingenious or stupid, benevolent or malevolent – in the words of Emerson:
Yet Saadi loved the race of men, —
No churl, immured in cave or den;
In bower and hall
He wants them all.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,» last modified April 9, 2009, http://www.emersoncentral.com/amscholar.htm.