There are few who have mastered the construction of romantic verse quite like Sayat Nova. He holds an unwavering spot in arguably every list of legendary Armenian poets and musicians. While much of Sayat Nova’s life story has been left to legend, what is evident from his work is that he was a man in love with words of love.
Born in Tiflis,Georgia in 1712 (although this date is disputed), Sayat Nova began mixing words and melodies at a very young age, finding an abundant supply of material in the topic of romance. His reputation as a skilled kamancheh, chonguri, and tambur player, coupled with his unique style of traditional minstrel lyricism mixed with poetic artistry, earned him a spot as a performer in the royal court of Georgian King Heraclius II.
His sudden expulsion from the court in 1759 seems to have left his more romantic fans wondering if it wasn’t a result of his rumored love for the king’s sister, Anna. Opposing schools of thought claim it was actually Sayat Nova’s occasionally cheeky songs about the royal order that caused his termination. Whether enamored with Anna or not, Sayat Nova eventually married a woman named Marmar and had four children (it is rumored this was a marriage not of love but of necessity to conceal any suspicion about his feelings for the king’s sister). Following his wife’s death in 1768, he spent the last decades of his life as a monk in Haghpat Monastery.
This leaves one question: for a man so famous for his words of love, was there really “a red flower of the field, a lily of the vale” if that role was not held by Marmar? Was he speaking of Anna? Or was he perhaps professing his feelings for God, nature, or his country? We may never be certain. But one might argue that it is the job of the poet to be in love, and if that is the case, Sayat Nova has nothing more to prove.
I sigh not, while thou art my soul! Fair one, thou art to me
A golden cup, with water filled of immortality.
I sit me down, that over me may fall thy shadow, sweet;
Thou art a gold-embroidered tent to shield me from the heat.
First hear my fault, and, if thou wilt, then slay this erring man;
Thou hast all power; to me thou art the Sultan and the Khan.
Thy waist is like a cypress-tree, sugar thy tongue, in sooth;
Thy lip is candy, and thy skin like Frankish satin smooth.
Thy teeth are pearls and diamonds, the gates of dulcet tones;
Thine eyes are gold-enamelled cups adorned with precious stones;
Thou art a rare and priceless gem, most wonderful to see;
A ruby rich of Mt. Bedakhsh, my love, thou art to me.
How can I bear this misery, unless my heart were stone?
My tears are blood because of thee, my reason is o’erthrown.
A young vine in the garden fresh thou art to me, my fair,
Enshrined in greenness, and set round with roses everywhere.
I, like the love-lorn nightingale, would hover over thee.
A landscape of delight and love, my queen, thou art to me!
Lo, I am drunken with thy love! I wake, but my heart sleeps.
The world is sated with the world; my heart its hunger keeps.
What shall I praise thee by, when naught is left on earth, save thee?
Thou art a deer, a Pegasus sprung from the fiery sea!
Speak but one word, to say thou art Saïat Nova’s love,
And then what matters aught to me, in earth or heaven above?
Thy rays have filled the world; thou art a shield that fronts the sun.
Thou dost exhale the perfume sweet of clove and cinnamon,
Of violet, rose, and marjoram; to me, with love grown pale,
Thou art a red flower of the field, a lily of the vale!
Translation by Alice Stone Blackwell