Ghalib: Selected Poems and Letters (2019)
By Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
Translated by Frances W. Pritchett & Owen T.A. Cornwall
Ghalib is a 19th-century Urdu-Persian poet. Ghalib: Selected Poems and Letters is a translation of some of Ghalib most popular verses. This translation is aimed at a general audience. Readers can enjoy the witty language of Ghalib in his ghazals, a genre of verse poetry.
A ghazal is a two-line verse that can be read independently or as a set with other ghazals; in which they have an impactful message to the reader. Each line of the ghazal must have a consistent meter where the long and short syllables are of the same sequence. The speaker of a ghazal is usually a passionate male lover who is reciting the poem for his beloved, usually a woman or a divine being. Also, the verses convey feelings of longing and isolation because the speaker is unable to be with his lover. The themes portrayed in this genre are usually love-sick poems, pain, longing, and unrequited love. The imagery that Ghalib used in his ghazals is focused on wine/intoxication, madness, death, and seduction.
To understand Ghalib’s verses, we must understand the formula of interpretation which is A is B and B is A. I will interpret two of Ghalib’s ghazals here.
The first ghazal I will discuss is #31.
How can the heat of the anxious mind be conveyed?
Just a passing thought of wildness- and the desert burned.
The two lines are connected like a Q&A. The first line is the question that the speaker asks the listener and the second line is the answer. In this verse, we see a connection between the mind and the desert. The speaker connects the heat of the desert to the “heat of the anxious mind.” In other words, the mind is overthinking, as indicated to the “passing thought of wildness. As for the nonstopped burning desert, it signifies one’s thoughts are constantly in motion.
The second ghazal that I would like to talk about is #94.
To move through life is to travel the road of restlessness—
For measuring such a year, lightning is the sun.
In this verse, the topic is about life. The speaker compares the progression movement of one’s life to traveling in the first line. In the first line, the speaker suggests that life is filled with pain and suffering as expressed by, “travel[ing] the road of restlessness.” Similarly, in the next line, we measure life by using time such as a “year.” In other words, “year” can be seen as a time measurement towards how long we have to live, and in this line, we see how life brings pain through the line “lightning is the sun.” This reference can imply that life can be filled with neverending pain.
I surprisingly enjoyed reading the poetry of Ghalib. It kind of reminded me of the poetry in the Kokinshu and also the love lyrics written during the Middle Ages. Many of those poems deal with the longing and suffering of a love that isn’t fulfilled.
Ghalib, Mirza Asadullah Khan. Ghalib: Selected Poems and Letters. Trans. by Frances W. Pritchett & Owen T.A. Cornwall, Columbia University Press, 2019.