Rumi, Machado, and Co.


Our Correspondents

A guide to “getting” Rumi.


A number of my poetry-loving friends have asked me over the years what Rumi’s poetry is really like. They’re all coming from the same place: they want to know if his stuff is as New Agey in Persian as it is in the translated quotations they’ve seen on the Internet. Is Rumi really such a sweetheart. Is he funny. Would he really use a construction like “I caught the happy virus.”

It’s easy enough to answer the question as to whether Rumi is funny.—No.— Or, I would say … he’s about as funny as the protagonist of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. (Perhaps someone with superior gifts, both of ingenuity and of defiance, would be able to wring some measure of hijinks out of both Rumi and Jesus, but the rest of us muggles have to content ourselves with conventional sublime holiness.) As for “the happy virus,” what can I say. I doubt it.

On the other hand, Rumi really was a sweetheart, and his poetry does have a certain self-help aura. He loves to traffic in homely metaphors, and he definitely does have “designs on your understanding” (or whatever it was that Keats said was preeminently resistible to him). At the same time, he’s friendly and encouraging. He does not get up in your face. He is seldom grumpy. 

I say all this without real satisfaction, though, because I’m convinced abstract descriptions such as these are not the thing when you’re trying to get across the style of a very alien poetry. The right thing to do is to point to poetry with which people are already more or less familiar, or at least something from their tradition, and say: “Rumi is like that.” I shall therefore adduce two items that, taken in tandem, will probably give you more Rumi than you would get from translations, scholarly or not, of actual Rumi poems. Hear me out.

First, to deliver the tenderness of his tone, and his deal with homely metaphors, and also his God-on-the-brain-ness, have a look at this famous poem by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado (circa 1907):

[Anoche cuando dormía … ]

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una fontana fuía
dentro de mi corazón.
Di, ¿por qué acequia escondida,
agua, vienes hasta mí,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y las doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las amarguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una ardiente sol lucía
dentro de mi corazón.
Era ardiente porque daba
calores de rojo hogar,
y era sol porque alumbraba
y porque hacía llorar.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.

I’m hoping many people reading this will know enough Spanish to bumble through the above without assistance, savoring the rhythm and the rhymes, but here’s a free-ish crib of what it says, just to fill in the gaps:

Last night, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt—blessèd illusion!—that a fountain was flowing in my heart. And I said: “From what hidden channel, water, have you traveled unto me, from what fountainhead of new life, of which I’ve never tasted?”

Last night, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt—blessèd illusion!—that I had a beehive settled inside my heart. And the golden honeybees traversed it to and fro, making out of my old bitternesses sweet honey and white wax.

Last night, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt—blessèd illusion!—that a burning sun was shining deep inside my heart. I knew it was burning because it gave heat as from a hearth; I knew it was the sun for it gave off light, and made me cry.

Last night, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt—blessèd illusion!—that it was God that I had, deep inside my heart.

It hurts me to type “blessèd illusion” there. You can’t beat the original’s bendita illusión. If I were really translating this thing I would just leave that part in Spanish.

At any rate, the above piece, written about 110 years ago, is SO RUMI. Read it over again and pretend it was written in Persian in the thirteenth century. The fact that it’s in Spanish will actually help with this.

Now, observe how the following, copied straight out of the old Arberry translation of Rumi’s ghazals is quite similar in technique and tone:

The heart is like a grain of corn, we are like a mill; how does the mill know why it’s turning?

The body is like a stone, and the water its thoughts; the stone says, “The water knows what is toward.”

The water says: “Ask the miller, for it was he who flung the water down.”

The miller says to you: “Bread-eater, if this does not turn, how shall the crumb broth be?”

Much business is in the making; silence! ask God, that He may tell you.

One reads the above thinking: OK, I like this, I can see how this is something, but what would it sound like if it were graceful? Try reading it through the “lens” of the Machado. Pretend the above translation rhymed and swooped smoothly like the Spanish poem. You can do this.

Meanwhile, I’ll close with an artistic analogy that’s probably more ready-to-hand, not as much work, and which might help skeptics “get” Rumi’s special appeal.

You know how David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) sent the message to a huge portion of the gay world that they weren’t alone, that they were wonderful, that Bowie understood and wanted to help—? Everything in the tonal register of encouragement and intimate conspiracy is consistent (and much more than consistent) with Rumi’s attitude.

Snatch up your guitar and play “Starman”:

—Well, I had to phone someone, so I picked on you-oo-oo
—Hey, that’s far out, so you heard him too-oo-oo
—Turn on your TV, you may pick him up on Channel 2

Look out your window, you may see his li-i-ight
if you can’t sparkle, you may learn toni-i-ight
don’t tell your papa or he’ll get us locked up in fright


There’s a starman
waiting in the sky
he’d like to come and meet us
but he thinks he’d blow our minds

There’s a starman
waiting in the sky
he told us not to blow it
’cuz he knows it’s all worthwhile

He told me
let the children lose it
let the children use it
let all the children boogie

All you have to do is switch out “starman” with “God” and all the kids in Tehran will say, “That is SO RUMI!”

Stay on message, people: If you can’t sparkle, you may learn tonight.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book of poems is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.