Be the Lament, or don’t Bother Singing

Here is an Urdu couplet by the Indian mystic-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.

The words of this couplet are fairly simple and the symbolism is traditional; yet its meanings are fresh and the underlying concepts have a distinctly contemporary flavor.  A simple paraphrase follows:

In this garden, either be a follower of the nightingale or a disciple of the rose; either become the lament [like the former] or refrain completely from singing [like the latter].

The symbols used in this couplet are familiar to any student of Indo-Persian literature. They have been used over and over again over many centuries, but usually within a limited range of semantic possibilities. It is this well-established cultural tradition that makes these symbols immediately recognizable all over the Persian and Urdu speaking societies of Asia. In this couplet, however, Iqbal manages to do something novel with these old symbols, reviving them as effective metaphors by pouring into them fresh insights.

The garden is obviously the world; the nightingale and the rose are two ways of being in the world, the former representing a life of self-expression and the latter a life of quiet contemplation. The nightingale sings, not out of joviality and celebration but in response to her pain. The nightingale’s pain is one of longing, of separation from the beloved (which is usually the rose). The song is therefore a lament. Innumerable poets have seen a reflection of their own yearning in the nightingale’s anguished song. The rose, on the other hand, is self-reflective, almost self-absorbed.

The symmetrical form of the couplet seems to indicate that there is nothing wrong with either of these options; it is as legitimate to be a rose as it is to be a nightingale. Whether one becomes this or that depends largely on one’s temperament, which is at least partly inherent and fixed. Yet, both lines of the couplet are in the imperative case, suggesting not only the possibility of choice but also its inevitability.

Jungians would say that the nightingale stands for extraversion and the rose for introversion. They would also see nothing wrong with either personality type, though each obviously has its limitations. Most Jungians would probably agree that a great deal of one’s propensity to be outward-looking or inward-looking are biologically given, more or less fixed, with only limited possibilities for conscious change.

From a religious viewpoint, being a nightingale amounts to prophetic religiosity that emphasizes practical ethics, and being a rose amounts to mystical religiosity with its stress on contemplative prayer and spiritual experience. A person’s inborn personality traits are obviously relevant to the kind of religiosity that he/she would find most satisfying. Both the prophetic and the mystical kinds of religiosity have existed throughout the recorded history of religion. Who is to say which of the two is superior?

But if nightingale and rose are two ways of being in the world, the issue at stake goes considerably beyond the question of types. In order to be in the world, i.e., in order to practice authentic being, a person has to take into account not only his/her own psychological propensities and subjective preferences but also the external demands of the moment. As we experience and encounter them, the objective demands of the world are never static. Sometimes the world allows and even encourages a person to be a rose; it provides opportunities and incentives for quiet contemplation, silent meditation, introspection, introversion, and self-exploration. At other times, the world is experienced in diametrically opposite ways, when it demands action and struggle directed outwards into the objective reality. At such moments, authentic being can best be practiced by becoming a nightingale. In times like that, self-expression is preferable to contemplation; one must stand up and speak out. To remain a rose when the world demands otherwise is not only to forsake one’s duty, it is also to suffer diminishing in being. One ceases to be real insofar as one ceases to be authentic.

For those individuals who are accustomed to being roses, the call to self-expression naturally provokes great anxiety. One response to such an existential challenge is to find refuge in a false sense of modesty or of self-imposed limitations; another is to accept the call but only half-heartedly, saying yes while insisting on a plethora of ifs and buts in small print. Iqbal’s couplet is a critique of this very reluctance, this avoidance of full commitment, that precludes the actualization of being at the precise moment when it is most likely to bloom into unforeseen beauty. In a state of being neither here nor there, one desperately seeks the comfort of remaining a rose, dreading the risks involved in living the life of a nightingale but also realizeing at some level that one’s very reality is at stake.

There is, then, no middle ground between the silent contemplation of the rose and the loud and daring self-expression of the nightingale. If one lacks the courage to be a nightingale, then Iqbal suggests it is better to remain a rose; there is no point in getting up on to the stage if one is only going to clear one’s throat, make a few practice notes, and then end one’s performance with a whimper.

Be the lament that’s in you, Iqbal says, or don’t sing at all.


2 Comments on “Be the Lament, or don’t Bother Singing

  1. Don’t the two work hand in hand? Even in Scripture Moses as Muhammad both contemplated the world before they revealed themselves to it. In other words, is it not that a person goes through a process of introversion before their entry into the realm of extroversion. Doesn’t one preclude the other? Aren’t they one whole: a beginning and an end, a start and a finish. Do they necessarily have to be separated? Isn’t conquering the self similar to conquering the world of ideas and ideaogies? Before venturing out, mustn’t one know oneself and their place in it?

  2. I see this poem completely differently. Isn’t this talking about the relationship between the bird and the rose? So the bird wouldn’t bother singing at all if there weren’t the flower there to inspire him. And the rose? By the nature of her place in the world, she can’t sing back. But isn’t she listening? Does she respond in a way that doesn’t require song, like trying to hang onto that dewdrop for a bit longer or reaching out to let the sunbeam through her petals?
    I’m tired of this “Us vs. Them” “Nightengales vs. Roses” mentality. They are not planets swimming in different orbits. They are neighbors in the garden! What about their interaction/conversation? How do they see each other? How do they witness each other?

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