Hyacinths to feed the soul: Celebrating Sa’di

Happy New Year, everyone! Persian new year, that is–Nowruz, which begins today, on the spring equinox.

Since learning about Nowruz some years ago from a Persian neighbor, I’ve had a special fondness for it because it often falls on my birthday (March 21). Perhaps some year I can celebrate it in Iran, with yummy Persian food.

Imagine my surprise when I found the video embedded below. I never thought I’d see “American president” and “Nowruz” tagged in the same story. Obama recorded this message to the Iranian people–a groundbreaking gesture of respect.

I’ve embedded the version with Persian subtitles, just because the language is so beautiful. It is the language of some of my favorite philosopher-poets: Rumi, Hafiz, Sa’di. The Persian transcript is available at the White House blog (archive).

Obama even quotes the poet Sa’di:

The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.

I suspect it’s unprecedented for an American president to quote a Persian poet. Have I died and gone to heaven?

Obama’s mention of Sa’di brought to mind a little poem I’ve carried around in my memory for decades. I first saw it in some too-bright magazine of sentimental spirituality way back when I was a child. Why did I commit this poem to memory? Perhaps because my people were practical to the point of soul starving. Perhaps because I dimly knew I wanted to live differently. At any rate, here is the version that’s been in my head for decades:

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft
And of thy simple store two loaves of bread alone are left
Sell one, and with the dole,
Buy hyacinths to feed the soul.

Some years ago I discovered this poem all over the Web, attributed in most places to Sa’di in the Gulistan. I went to my closest university library, checked out the Gulistan, and spent some days reading it. The message of the poem fit Sa’di’s philosophy, but I never did find the exact reference.

So where, exactly, does this poem come from? If any of you have the exact citation, whether in the Gulistan or from some other source, I’d love to know about it. Either post a comment or contact me by email. Even better, send me the Persian original (if it does come from Sa’di), or post it in a comment.

Happy New Year, and happy equinox.

Update: Thanks to reader Terrence Berres, who emailed me with the original, which appeared as “Not by Bread Alone,” by James Terry White, published in Century Magazine (August 1907), 519. Thanks to Terrence for the citation and the link to the pdf original.


One Response to Hyacinths to feed the soul: Celebrating Sa’di

  1. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:January 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    A reader, FZ, wrote in today (1-22-10) to say this (thanks, FZ!):

    An online colleague just tracked it down to a privately published book from 1907: James Terry White, _In Saadi’s Rose Garden_. An online image from the Cornell University Library can be found here.

    I gather that the verses were White’s, inspired by Sa’di and written in somewhat the same spirit.

    Amazon is apparently offering a reprint of Terry’s book for sale, though the title has been electronically garbled almost beyond recognition: “In Saumladircommaas rose