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Featured Poem: The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar

Written by Rachael Norris, 1st June 2020

This week in our special series of Featured Poems, Helen Wilson, The Reader's Head of Shared Reading programmes, shares her thoughts on The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar.

Here at The Reader we are often challenged to find poetry which is both available for public use and is something ‘new’, to share with you while so many of us are still spending much of our time at homeFinding myself again stalled in front of the bookcase, I remembered The Conference of the Birds, a 12th century epic written by Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar I stumbled across in recent months. Funny and moving by turn, the thing I perhaps most love this poem for is the playful final reveal, which seems to suggest that we may already have some of the very things we set out looking for in life, if only we knew how to discover them. 

To give some background, a plucky and enthused Hoopoe bird spends a good deal of the book trying to persuade a gang of friends to accompany him on a quest to find the Simorgh; a mythical creature whom he seems to think well worth a perilous and arduous journey to encounter. There’s some initial interest, but on learning that the road is likely to be both long and difficult, most of his companions make their excuses and fall away. A remaining thirty, however, set out to brave the road together. 

This extract is taken from the very end, which sees the ‘thirty exhausted, wretched, broken things/with hopeless hearts and trailing wings’ finally draw near to the Simorgh; but not before being cautioned against travelling further by a concerned guide who eventually, on their insistence, agrees to help. First though, they are presented with a book to read, detailing ‘their lives, their actions, set out one by one/all that their souls had ever been or done’ which understandably has not altogether pleasant consequences for everyone involved. But oddly does seem to be the very thing which prompts the Simorgh to finally appear... 

To everyone’s surprise, the Simorgh is not at all as the party expect; faced as they find themselves not with beautiful – not to mention much anticipated mystical being, but rather a mirror of their own image: ‘And all who come before My splendour see/Themselves, their own unique reality...Though you have struggled, wandered, travelled far,/It is yourselves you see and what you are.’  

The Simorgh continues, ending his revelatory speech with these words: 

How much you thought you knew and saw; but you 

Now know that all you trusted was untrue. 

Though you traversed the Valley’s depths and fought 

With all the dangers that the journey brought, 

The journey was in Me, the deeds were Mine – 

You slept secure in Being’s inmost shrine. 

And since you came as thirty birds, you see 

The Simorgh, Truth’s last flawless jewel, the light 

In which you will be lost to mortal sight 

Dispersed to nothingness until once more 

You find me in the selves you were before.’ 

Then, as they listened to the Simorgh’s words, 

A trembling dissolution filled the birds – 

The substance of their being was undone, 

And they were lost like shade before the sun; 

Neither the pilgrims nor their guide remained. 

The Simorgh ceased to speak, and silenced reigned.   

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