Who Wrote the Poem at the End of “The Shape of Water”? cover

Who Wrote the Poem at the End of “The Shape of Water”?

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The Library of Congress receives hundreds of questions each year from people seeking help identifying the full text and authors of poems they read years—if not decades—ago. Most people are able to recall little more than a phrase or line from the sought poem and the general period of their life when they read it (e.g., elementary school or high school), and then hope that our reference librarians can successfully apply their sleuthing skills to the task of tracking down the complete poem.
I and my colleagues in the Library’s new Researcher and Reference Services Division (formerly the Humanities and Social Sciences Division) field the vast majority of “help finding a poem” questions that come in through the Library’s Ask a Librarian service, and we pride ourselves on having quite a good success rate in identifying poems and their sources for patrons.
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Who Wrote the Poem at the End of “The Shape of Water”?

The Library of Congress receives hundreds of questions each year from people seeking help identifying the full text and authors of poems they read years—if not decades—ago. Most people are able to recall little more than a phrase or line from the sought poem and the general period of their life when they read it (e.g., elementary school or high school), and then hope that our reference librarians can successfully apply their sleuthing skills to the task of tracking down the complete poem.

I and my colleagues in the Library’s new Researcher and Reference Services Division (formerly the Humanities and Social Sciences Division) field the vast majority of “help finding a poem” questions that come in through the Library’s Ask a Librarian service, and we pride ourselves on having quite a good success rate in identifying poems and their sources for patrons.

That said, it’s not always possible to pinpoint the exact source of a poem, or to definitively identify a poem’s author.

Such is the case with the poem at the end Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 movie—and recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture—The Shape of Water.

During the past month, several moviegoers who have seen The Shape of Water have written us in desperate search of the original source and author of this poem. And they are not the only ones in pursuit of an answer: searching the poem’s text online reveals many websites, online forums, and social media services—from Reddit to Twitter—whose users are actively trying to figure out the poem’s author.

The poem, as I mentioned, appears at the close of The Shape of Water, and is introduced by the movie’s narrator, who says (minor spoiler alert!): “But when I think of her, of Elisa, the only thing that comes to mind is a poem, whispered by someone in love hundreds of years ago.”

Jalal al-Din Rumi. (Spiritual Couplets). Persia, 1441, copied by Salah al Din Mir Shah. Manuscript. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress.

The narrator then recites the following poem (which I have not lineated):

Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.

I and my colleague, Kathy Woodrell, who fielded one of the questions the Library received about the poem, searched numerous full-text databases, poetry indexes, and online resources—many of which are listed on my online guide to finding poems—for the poem, but couldn’t find any exact matches.

While many online sources attribute the lines to the 13th century Sufi mystic poet Rumi, none we found provide an exact citation that could be used to verify Rumi’s authorship. Other online attributions we came across, such as the claim that the poem was written by Byzantine monk Symeon the New Theologian (942-1022 A.D.) and appears in an English translation of his Divine Eros, also did not pan out upon review of the cited works.

Failing to find any reputable print or online sources that identify the poem’s author, Kathy and I took a closer look at what, if anything, Guillermo del Toro has said about the poem. As it turns out, del Toro claims he came across the poem in a book of Islamic poetry. This claim appears in a review of the The Shape of Water published in the November 23, 2017, issue of Northern Kentucky University’s student newspaper, The Northerner:

Though he doesn’t remember exactly where the verse came from, del Toro remembers reading it in a book of Islamic poetry, found in a bookstore he’d frequent before going on set to film.

Some additional details are given in a November 2017 Gold Derby interview with Richard Jenkins, who plays Giles in the movie. Jenkins recalls what del Toro told him about the poem’s source:

Narration is hard. It’s really hard. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t have the final narration until about two weeks before I stopped shooting, and Guillermo came up to me and he said, “I found this poem in a bookstore today. It’s written by a man hundreds of years ago,” which I say in the narration. He said it was his love letter to God and we’re gonna use it. So that’s how that came to be.

In a December 2017 conference call discussion about The Shape of Water with several colleges, del Toro reveals even more about the source of the poem:

Then we were already shooting the movie and it was the first week of the shoot, and I always arrive an hour or two before the crew to the set and I was a little earlier than that. Then my driver says, “What do we do?” When I have any free time, I say “Let’s go into a bookshop.” So we went to a bookshop, and I was browsing the shelves. I found this poem in a book about an illuminated poet talking about Allah, talking about God.

I thought it was so magnificent. It moved me very much, and I bought the book. We got the credits in the movie—they’re there at the end, and it became the most beautiful closing I could have imagined for the movie. But I decided already there. That day, we recorded Richard Jenkins reading it for the editing, and I knew that it was going to be perfect for the film.

Aha! Kathy and I thought when we read this. If, as del Toro says, the poem or book is listed in the end credits of The Shape of Water, all we need to do is watch the movie and note the poem’s source as it scrolls by in the credits.

Dutifully, Kathy and I separately watched the movie, with pen and paper at the ready to jot down the poem’s source. As the end credits rolled, though, we had the same experience: at first eagerly awaiting the source’s appearance, only for that eagerness to turn to despair when the credits ended without any mention of the poem or book.

What happened? Either del Toro’s words were not accurately reported, or his statement was inaccurate.

Throughout our search, Kathy and I were keenly aware that the book in which del Toro supposedly read the poem would likely have been an English translation of Islamic poetry. Even if we couldn’t find the English translation of the poem, we reasoned, perhaps a scholar of Islamic poetry would be able to recognize and direct us to the original version of the poem (in Arabic or Persian, perhaps).

Since the poem’s authorship was most frequently attributed to Rumi, I emailed Brad Gooch, author of the recent Rumi biography Rumi’s Secret: The Life and Times of the Sufi Poet of Love, to see if he might have come across these lines during his research. According to Dr. Gooch:

Rumi wrote over three thousand ghazals, and two thousand robaiyat, which are lyric poems akin to sonnets and quatrains. Many have not been translated. Many have been extraordinarily loosely translated. Often lines are attributed to Rumi that are simply not by Rumi. Those lines indeed do sound like Rumi, but they could have been written by a Sufi poet of the time under the influence of Rumi or of the general poetic thinking of the time, or someone later under the influence of either [or both].

Bottom line: I cannot give you a definite attribution for the lines, nor can I say they are definitely by Rumi (though they might be!).

Fatemeh Keshavarz, Director of the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Chair and Director of the University’s Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, agrees. Responding to my email inquiry, Dr. Keshavarz said that “the quote does not remind me of any particular verse of Rumi,” though it does mirror key concepts and themes in Islamic lyric poetry and Rumi’s own work:

The concept that the beloved’s shape is not to be perceived by the lover because the beloved is omnipresence has become a universal love theme in Islamic lyric poetry because the concept is expressed in the Qur’an. Since Rumi is the best know Muslim mystic, at this point, I am not surprised that it will be attributed to him.

Also, I have no doubt that if we sifted through his lyric poetry corpus, we will find many lines evoking the shapelessness and the omnipresence of the beloved.

Dr. Keshavarz points to two verses from the Qur’an as oft-quoted examples of these ideas:

“Wherever you turn is the face of God” (defined as the beloved or the truth by the Sufis).” – Qur’an 2:115

“He is the beginning, the end, the outer and the inner.” – Qur’an: 57:3)

Given the information Kathy and I have amassed, what conclusions can we offer about the poem’s origin?

The most likely scenario is that the poem in The Shape of Water is an adaptation of a poem del Toro read in a book of Islamic poetry he found at a bookstore.

Del Toro may have had the book in hand when adapting the poem, or may instead have relied on his memory of the poem’s text. The poem he adapted was likely written by an Islamic lyric poet, perhaps in Arabic or Persian. While the poem could have been written by any of a number of Islamic poets operating in the lyric or mystic tradition given the poem’s common theme, Rumi has quickly become the leading candidate.

This may in part be due to Rumi functioning as what quotation expert Garson O’Toole calls a “Host,” a well-known figure such as Mark Twain or Yogi Berra who frequently receives credit for a statement he never made, but which sounds like something he could have written or uttered.

Another possibility is that del Toro is the sole, original author of the poem. In this scenario, he invented the story about discovering the poem in a book at a bookstore, perhaps as way to add a layer of mystery, or mysteriousness, about the poem’s source.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0

This would explain his reticence to give a detailed source for the poem, assuming he actually purchased the book in which it appears, as he has claimed (“It moved me very much, and I bought the book”).

Of course, the question about the poem’s authorship could be answered by del Toro. Did he, in fact, purchase the book of Islamic poetry in which he says he found the poem? If so, he can provide the publication details for the book, and even the page on which the poem appears. I tried informally contacting del Toro through Twitter, but received no response. Perhaps some of the readers of this post are interested enough in the mystery of the poem’s authorship to contact him through other means.

If you uncover any further clues or leads about the poem’s origins, feel free to share below! (Editor's Note - Updates follow!)

UPDATE: Several commenters attribute the poem to the 11th and 12th century Sufi mystical poet Hakim Sanai (pseudonym of Abū al-Majd Majdūd ibn Ādam). Sanai, who resided in Ghazna (modern day Ghazni), Afghanistan, is best known for The Enclosed Garden of the Truth (Ḥadīqat al-ḥaqīqah), which is considered the first major Persian mystical poem.

The Enclosed Garden of Truth was first translated into English by J. Stephenson in 1910, and is available online through the HathiTrust Digital Library. In particular, a translation of a section by Priya Hemenway on page 38 of The Book of Everything: Journey of the Heart’s Desire : Hakim Sanai’s Walled Garden of Truth (2002) is a fairly close match, in both content and style, to the poem in The Shape of Water.

While Hemenway’s translation may indeed have been the poem that inspired Guillermo del Toro, since it embodies themes presents in much other Sufi mystical poetry, definitive attribution must come from del Toro himself.

If any other significant leads or suggestions come to light, I’ll update the post accordingly.