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West-Eastern Divan (paperback)

West-Eastern Divan (paperback)


Complete, annotated new translation, including Goethe’s ‘Notes and Essays’ & the unpublished poems

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

translated by Eric Ormsby

Format: Paperback
Published: March 2021
Pages: 640
ISBN: 9781909942554

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One of the major works of world literature finally available in a new, complete and annotated translation

In 1814, Goethe read the poems of the great fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz in a newly published translation by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. The book was a revelation. He called Hafiz his twin and was immediately inspired to create a Divan of his own. At the same time he met Marianne von Willemer, with whom he rapidly fell in love. She became the Suleika to his Hatem and a conversation begun with Hafiz blossomed into a duet for two lovers.

In this much awaited new translation, Eric Ormsby’s clear prose is accompanied by explanatory notes of both the verse in German and in English and of Goethe’s own commentary, the ‘Notes and Essays for a Better Understanding of the West-Eastern Divan’.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German poet, novelist, playwright and natural philosopher, considered one of the greatest figures in Western literature. His most famous work is Faust, a poetic drama in two parts.

Eric Ormsby is a distinguished scholar in the field of Islamic Studies. He taught at McGill University where he was Professor and Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies.

Eric Ormsby on translating Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan:


Introduction by Eric Ormsby



The Book of the Singer

The Book of Hafiz

The Book of Love

The Book of Reflections

The Book of Ill-Humor

The Book of Wisdom

The Book of Timur

The Book of Suleika

The Book of the Cup-Bearer

The Book of Parables

The Book of the Parsi

The Book of Paradise






Ancient Persians





Further Observation

Mahmud of Ghazna






Jalal al-Din Rumi

Sa ̔di





Very Miscellaneous

Newer, Newest







Primal Elements of Oriental Poetry

Transition from Tropes to Similes

Admonition 413 Comparison



Natural Forms of Poetry


The Book-Oracle

The Exchange of Flowers and Signs


Prospective Divan

Old Testament Matters

Israel in the Desert

The Stopping-Places of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness Aids Closer to Hand

Pilgrimages and Crusades

Marco Polo

Johannes von Montevilla

Pietro della Valle



Tavernier and Chardin

Recent and Most Recent Travellers

Teachers: Departed or Still Living




Von Diez

Von Hammer


Final Conclusion!



[Dedicatory Poems]

Appendix: Poems Collected Posthumously

Index of German titles and first lines

Index of English titles and first lines



The West-Eastern Divan is in many ways a revolutionary book. Goethe himself was no revolutionary – far from it – and yet his book had the effect of capsizing conventional nineteenth-century conceptions of poetry. It represented nothing less than a decisive reconfiguration of German, and indeed European, poetry. Goethe achieved this in the most unexpected way: by his openness to a foreign and exotic world that was unknown to his readers, he widened the scope of German poetry and he did so in formal measures that were thoroughly familiar, thoroughly German and yet, startlingly new, even bizarre, in their content. He taught his readers to decipher ‘that hidden grammar that declines both the poppy and the rose’ (‘Higher and Highest’, Poem 188).1 He introduced a new lexicon of tropes and figures drawn from Persian poetry, as well as a novel form of allusiveness. He wrote, ‘The word is a fan! Between its pleats a pair of lovely eyes gazes out’ (‘Hint’, Poem 26) and the poems themselves are ‘pleated’: Persian or Arabic sources, ingeniously adapted from prose or verse excerpts in translation, are shaped into fresh and original forms (‘The Winter and Timur’, Poem 102).2 When Goethe writes, ‘The rose always appears impossible, inconceivable the nightingale’ (Poem 109), he is folding a line from Rūmī into German and the effect is at once mysterious and familiar; it is an insight that opens ever outward and yet, it is one we seem always to have had. The genial tone of the book only enhances its strangeness.

Readers new to the Divan might expect to find further evidence of the ‘Olympian’ Goethe, that lofty and rather stuffy caricature. After all, he was almost seventy when he embarked on the Divan. And yet, though the poems are those of an ageing man, they read as if written by a young man. Even the stateliest poems in the Divan display an ardour and passion that are hardly consistent with the image of ‘Goethe the Sage’, the very effigy of wisdom mounted on a pompous pedestal. We know, of course, that this is a false image; Goethe once confessed that he had not passed a day of his life without experiencing severe inner conflict. What serenity he possessed came at the cost of continual effort. This is not immediately apparent in the Divan for it is a book of uncommon radiance; and yet, when we consider the contradictions and antitheses on which it is based and from which it arose, we may glimpse something of the spiritual and artistic struggle it demanded. Then, too, for all their formal beauty the poems of the Divan are often impetuous and sometimes even a bit silly; they present the unlikely spectacle of an old man besotted with a younger woman – and a younger married woman at that. This is the stuff of comedy; and in certain poems, there are hints that Goethe was aware of the absurdity of his situation, if only in the eyes of envious others. That he succeeded in transforming this potentially comical affair (for the husband was not simply complacent but flattered to be cuckolded by the great Goethe!) into sublime verse testifies not only to the shaping force of his imagination but to something even rarer: the capacity to surrender with complete confidence to his own deepest feelings and to follow wherever they might lead him.


By 1814, five years before the publication of the Divan, Goethe had come upon the poems of Ḥāfiẓ in the translation of Joseph von Hammer (later von Hammer-Purgstall), a prolific Orientalist who had rendered the complete Divan of the Persian poet into German. The word divan (dwn in Arabic) is itself of Persian origin; originally it meant a kind of register, a record. (The word has passed into European languages to designate border and customs controls, e.g., douane in French or dogana in Italian.) An early Arab philologist could state that ‘poetry is the dwn of the Arabs’. By that he meant that the poems of the pre-Islamic Arabs, with their very specific mentions of places and of tribes, of battles and skirmishes, of blood-feuds and clan rivalries, served as a record of events that would otherwise have been lost. That poetry was oral and carried in the memories both of poets and of professional reciters, some of whom knew thousands of poems and lines by heart and declaimed them, often on the eve of battle, to encourage their own troops and intimidate their enemies. (Goethe gives one example of such a poem in the beginning of his Notes and Essays.)3 But the word divan also came to designate the collected works of a poet. And it is in conscious imitation of his beloved Ḥāfiẓ that Goethe chose to use the word Divan for his own collection. Even so, there is a crucial distinction to be noted. Goethe calls his own collection the West-östlicher Divan, the West-Eastern Divan. His Divan is not to be simply an imitation of an Eastern model but a work that holds both East and West in firm but affectionate equipoise.


The Divan can seem puzzling at first sight; a summary of its main themes may be useful. Goethe himself identifies four such themes in Poem 7 (‘Elements’). These are, first and fore- most, love ‘above all things’, then wine and wine-drinking, the ‘clink of glasses’, war, the ‘clang of weapons’, and finally, whatever is hateful. The last-mentioned theme, the subject of The Book of Ill-Humour, may surprise. The poems there do not deal with ‘the hateful’ as such but with certain specific moral flaws, such as arrogance and self-love; they complement the ethical precepts which Goethe was so fond of dispensing, often in aphoristic form (as in The Book of Wisdom), and they settle a few scores along the way (e.g., Poem 74 and ‘Wanderer’s Peace of Mind’, Poem 76).

The eminent Goethe scholar Karl Otto Conrady has revised Goethe’s summary of his themes. Conrady identifies four that are interwoven throughout, the first of which is ‘the poetic art of Ḥāfiẓ which spurred Goethe on to a new, hitherto unexpected productivity’. He then lists love, culminating in the ‘duo-drama’ of Hatem and Suleika and thirdly, ‘earthly and spiritual drunkenness’ as seen in The Book of the Cup-Bearer. The last theme consists of ‘The accumulated wisdom found in the edifying verses (Spruchverse).’4

This is a good corrective but it is incomplete. For there are at least two other powerful themes that course through the entire Divan. Perhaps the most significant of these is song itself. For Goethe, song is not only ancient but primordial; it has neither beginning nor end and so is virtually eternal (‘Unbounded’, Poem 23). It is no coincidence that the open- ing book of the Divan is entitled The Book of the Singer. And as Goethe makes clear (‘Song and Shape’, Poem 13), for him, song is something flowing and elemental, like the river Euphrates itself, water that the poet must seize and shape, unlike the rigid forms that a Greek artisan crafts out of clay. This too is something new in the poetry of the time.

The other theme is that of longing. It is longing that ‘holds us all, from the dust-speck to the throne, in mighty bonds’ (‘To Hafiz’, Poem 27).5 The sense of longing, of yearning (Sehnsucht) that permeates the Divan, though not always explicitly stated, may be what makes the book still so fresh, so youthful, after two hundred years. There is no finality to the Poet’s quest; there is only further transformation. And it is longing that impels transformation. This is most evident in ‘Holy Longing’ (Selige Sehnsucht, Poem 17), one of the most famous and perhaps the most beautiful of Goethe’s later poems.

It is possible to read this poem as an epitome of Islamic mysticism. From the opening injunction to keep privileged knowledge from the uninitiated, a fundamental Sufi notion, to the final imperative ‘Die and become!’, corresponding to the paired notions of ‘self-annihilation’ (fan) and ‘abiding return’ (baq) of the classical Sufi manuals6 – not forgetting the pervasive trope of the moth and the flame in Persian poetry – the poem seems wholly inspired by a Sufi vision of personal transformation. And yet, the matter is not so straightforward. Thus, the moth of Persian poetry has now become a butterfly, an ancient Greek symbol of the soul (psyche). The concern to keep esoteric knowledge from the uninitiated is at least as old as Horace7 and figured in the ancient mystery religions as well as in Christianity. The commandment to ‘die and become’ is found in many variants in the New Testament.8

The conceptual beauty of the poem lies in the deft assimilation of concepts drawn from antiquity, Christian teaching and Islamic mysticism; these elements are subtly intertwined and none is privileged above the others. It is an example of the kind of ‘doubling’ (about which more below) that characterises the Divan from beginning to end.

1 I have numbered the poems in the Divan for ease of reference, and in this introduction refer to them by title and number. Untitled poems are referred to by number only.

2 See the notes to Poem 102 for details on how Goethe transformed a prose translation from the Arabic into a powerful original poem.

3 See below pp. 350–5.

4 Karl Otto Conrady, Goethe: Leben und Werk (Munich and Zürich: Artemis und Winkler, 1994), p. 877.

5 Goethe had, of course, expressed this theme, decades earlier, most famously in ‘Mignon’, incorporated in his 1795 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt,/ Weiß, was ich leide!’ (Only he who knows longing/ knows what I suffer).

6 For a good discussion of these concepts, see the classic work by R.C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

7 Horace, Odes III:1: ‘I hate the common crowd and keep them away’ (Odi profanum vulgus et arceo…) – a sentiment that Goethe fully shared.

8 Thus, Matthew 10:39, I Corinthians 15:36, and most famously, John 12:24: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’

Cover of A New Divan published by Gingko


‘…This fine volume — which also contains a translation of the essays on Eastern culture that Goethe added to make the poems more intelligible — should make the Divan accessible to many more readers.’
Ritchie Robertson, TLS


A TLS Book of the Year (2019


Goethe Yearbook 2021 review