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 yearsif not decadesago. 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 movieand recent winner of the Academy Award for Best PictureThe 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 servicesfrom Reddit to Twitterwhose 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.”

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.

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 (029.00.00)

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.

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 resourcesmany 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. 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!

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.

Update 2: Commenter Julie points out that a translation by Priya Hemenway on page 41 of The Book of Everything (first line: “Unable to discern the form of You, / I see your Your presence all around.”) is actually much closer in wording to the text of the poem at the end of the movie. I agree, and believe the wording is near enough that it’s quite likely Hemenway’s translation is the one adapted for the movie by del Toro. Thanks, Julie!

Update 3: In response to several readers who commented that a reference to Hakim Sanai appears in the end credits of the movie, I reviewed the end credits again and discovered, near their finish, the following reference:

"Adapted works by Hakim Sanai." Attribution from the end credits of The Shape of Water.

“Adapted works by Hakim Sanai.” Attribution appearing in the end credits of The Shape of Water.

Bingo! This attribution, which doesn’t name the specific “adapted works” to which it refers, surely must be in reference to poem at the movie’s end.

So why did I, my colleagues, and many other people miss the reference to Hakim Sanai in the end credits? One possibility is that the end credits for the theatrical version of the movie were revised for the movie’s release on DVD, on demand, and on streaming services. If any readers recall seeing the credit to Sanai while watching the movie in a theater, please let me know in the comments.

Another possibility is that, because I was scouring the credits for a reference that included the word “poem” or “poetry,” I overlooked the more general reference to “adapted works.”

Finally, a lack of familiarity with the life and writings of Hakim Sanai, which I’m guessing is shared by many people who watched the movie, could have led me and others to gloss over the reference to him. Conversely, had the attribution mentioned a poet more widely recognized by American audiences such as Rumi, it’s much more likely the credit would have jumped out at us.

So where does this new information leave us with respect to the poem’s authorship? In sum, I believe we can now rather confidently state that the poem appearing at the end of The Shape of Water is an adaptation by Guillermo del Toro of a translation made by Priya Hemenway of an original poem by Hakim Sanai. Hemenway’s translation appears on page 41 of her book The Book of Everything: Journey of the Heart’s Desire : Hakim Sanai’s Walled Garden of Truth.

Thanks to the many commenters on this post for their help tracking down the poem’s source. Again, if any other significant information about the poem’s source comes to light, I’ll update the post accordingly.

36 Comments

  1. Charlie
    March 9, 2018 at 7:46 pm

    Excellent, thoughtful, and kind discussion of what could have been a thorny problem. I particularly liked your reference to Garson O’Toole’s concept of a “Host” — Einstein is another favorite of those who wish a well-known and highly respected attribution for their favorite sentiment.

    Thank you for a great posting.

  2. Ellen OBrian
    March 10, 2018 at 11:22 pm

    Thank you for your research. I’m grateful for it! It’s a breath of fresh air to find this on the web where attribution (or lack of it) runs wild.

  3. FAYOLA SPRING
    March 11, 2018 at 3:04 am

    This is the nearest translation I’ve found. It was probably paraphrased for the movie. I hope this is helpful

    The way to You

    by Hakim Sanai

    English version by Priya Hemenway
    Original Language Persian/Farsi

    The way to You
    lies clearly in my heart
    and cannot be seen or known to the mind.
    As my words turn to silence,
    Your sweetness surrounds me.

  4. Patricia Gray
    March 11, 2018 at 9:50 am

    To Peter Armenti and Kathy Woodrell:
    Thanks so much for your fascinating foray into the source of this poem and for giving us a glimpse into what happens when two literary super-sleuths go to work!

  5. mary lou Sherman
    March 11, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    Please publish the author when you discover who it is. TIA

  6. Gian Luca Ferme
    March 11, 2018 at 7:23 pm

    This poem is actually by an Afghani poet from around the year 1000, Hakim Sanai. It’s called “The Way to You”.

  7. Peter Armenti
    March 12, 2018 at 10:05 am

    Thank you! A number of references to Sanai as the author of the poem that inspired del Toro have appeared online the past few days. I’ve updated the post suggesting that Hemenway’s translation could be the work del Toro read and subsequently adapted for The Shape of Water.

  8. Diane Oliver
    March 12, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Thank you for all your hard work.

  9. Anon
    March 15, 2018 at 2:50 am

    Try Divine Eros by Saint Symeon

  10. RC
    March 15, 2018 at 9:40 am

    It also sounds like text I found in the Confessions of St. Augustine. I love it as it is–wherever it started, it is an ancient sentiment in praise of a Supreme Being.
    I am sure many faiths relate to it.

  11. Louise
    March 17, 2018 at 11:18 pm

    Reminds me of poetry by Hafiz (c.1320-1389) of Persia.

  12. RJ Guthrie
    March 22, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    The capitalization of You suggests to me that it’s a prayer. Taken out of the movie’s context, it is a prayer! “You” is God.

  13. Judy
    March 24, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Thank you Peter and Kathy. Because of this review, I purchased a Kindle edition of “The Book of Everything, Journey of the Heart’s Desire, Hakim Sanai’s Walled Garden of the Truth.” Translated by Priya Hemenway. Several commenters and the updated blog entry have already mentioned the poem on page 38 as being a close match, but I believe the translation by Hemenway on page 41 to be even better fit:

    Unable to discern the form of You,
    I see Your presence all around.
    Filling my eyes with the love of You,
    my heart is humbled,
    for You are everywhere.

    This is the version Guillermo del Toro posted on his Twitter feed in December:
    “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…”

  14. Chrysoula
    March 24, 2018 at 11:13 am

    “Buried deep in the closing credits is an acknowledgement of the work of the 12th Century Muslim poet, Hakim Sanai, who is perhaps responsible for the film’s closing words. That Sufi spiritualism should inform The Shape of Water’s message of love and tolerance (in opposition to Strickland’s twisted biblical appropriations) comes as little surprise given its director’s wide pool of influences.”

    —Matt Thrift. Review: The Shape Of Water. Little White Lies, lwlies.com

  15. Marlene E
    March 25, 2018 at 2:25 am

    Thank you Peter Armenti & Kathy Woodrell @ Library of Congress both for the work you do for us, and for your prodigous research for an articulate, compassionate article. I will bookmark /subscribe to your site for more in depth articles like this.
    And thank you to Fayola Spring who, like me (tho she saved me the trouble) researches details like this at 3 a.m. (…but I have to look it up, I must KNOW!!!)
    Kindred spirits all.

  16. D Gross
    March 28, 2018 at 11:55 am

    Sincere thanks for the efforts!

    Seeing as the movie’s author is still among us, perhaps a letter – on Library of Congress letterhead, naturally – to Mr. del Toro, might also be a way of obtaining the conclusive story?

  17. Captain obvious
    April 1, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    If you watch the credits of the movie to the very end, del Toro tells you that the poem comes from Hakim Sanai. #duh.

  18. Stewart Thomas
    April 3, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this entire story, and the further sleuthing by the readers below, because this is the kind of work I end up doing every month! I too have contacted Dr. Keshavarz, a very generous person indeed, in trying to track down Rumi’s work in particular. As a calligrapher, I’m often asked to find the original passage in Persian when the person only knows a bit of English translation, or even less. Persian poetry is beautiful and extensive, but the language is often quite different than how it ends up in English. I am very happy that the poets of the Persian language are at last getting the interest they deserve, but wish that those who quote them would be a little more helpful about their sources and attributions. After all, people don’t say, I bought some little book and put it in my movie–some guy named Shakespeare, maybe, but I’m not sure where the quote is from!

  19. Ahmad
    April 5, 2018 at 8:11 pm

    Thanks for searching.

  20. MikeH
    April 7, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    There is also the question of the source for the phrase “the shape of water”, as none of the Islamic sources refer specifically to water. Perhaps it is an obvious image for “formless”, but there would seem to be many candidates (air, mud, space, etc.), and water is, after all, the main image of the film.

    “The Shape of Water” is the title of a popular 2002 detective novel by Andrea Camillen, originally in Italian but translated into numerous languages. In that story (at least in the TV version I’ve seen) it is an image for what appears to be a clever crime but, by the end, becomes an image for forbidden love. This context is especially suitable for del Toro’s film, because in both, what is conventionally seen as evil is more ambiguous.

    By putting the image into a Sufi context, Del Toro has taken it to a metaphysical level. In the Islamic context it would be a metaphor for God. A further implication, if you think both about del Toro and Camillen, is that both God and the Devil have “the shape of water.”

    One could ask, what inspired Camillen to use the phrase? I only know the TV version (episode 3 of the “Inspector Montalbano” series, available with subtitles on DVD), which doesn’t go into that.

  21. Gina H.
    April 8, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    There are also similar verses in the Tao Te Ching, and the Mystic and Gnostic ideas of Christianity (for example Sophiology in Russian Orthodoxy and the Nag Hammadi Library.

  22. Maher El Battouty (maher battuti)
    April 9, 2018 at 9:00 am

    I like to add an Arabic translation I made of the poem. I did not add signs to the addressed in the verses so as it could be interpreted also as Sufi concept:

  23. Joe
    April 13, 2018 at 12:10 am

    At the very end of the credits it states, “Adapted works by Hakim Sanai.

  24. Aliza Yafa
    April 13, 2018 at 10:24 am

    It sounds like David’s psalm to me. It’s clearly influenced by the God in the Bible. Even the Islamic Poetry were many originated from Jewish and Christians literatures, and Bible. Not to mention the Qoran itself.

  25. Yaprak
    April 16, 2018 at 10:36 am

    It ia written at the very end…. Hakim Senai…

  26. patricio rizzo
    May 19, 2018 at 5:04 pm

    poetry touches everybody, regardless of boundaries. To me the movie seems to be about how the difference is treated by colonial forces, the captured and amphibian being is from South America, from the Amazon, the largest moving source of water in our planet –Planet Water no Earth :). We all have in common water and love, so the message of the poem and the movie is to open our hearts beyond any dogmatism, as I read in all the comments here.

  27. Laura García
    May 25, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    I love you both!

  28. Saman Rahemi
    May 29, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    in response to the comment #6: there was no Afghanistan in those years so we can say Hakim Sanai was Persian as Iran, Afghanistan and some other countries in that region were, in fact, parts of Persia back then. The poems were originally written in Farsi which is nowadays spoken, in the most similar way, in Iran. though the poet’s birthplace is now located in Afghanistan. some of his poets are being taught in literature courses in Iran’s schools and colleges. I myself remember this exact poem from school days.

  29. Saman Rahemi
    May 29, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    in response to myself 😀 : “some of his poems…” in line 4

  30. Elizabeth
    June 19, 2018 at 10:19 am

    Great explanation.

  31. AB
    July 25, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    Thank you for the research. I read Persian poetry in its original, and tried searching for the original. The closest match I could find is a ghazal by a mystic poet named Fakhr al-Din Iraqi (1213-1289). He was a contemporary of Rumi, and has a lot of juicy mystical poems at the same calibre. They never met though. Here’s the link to the full poem in the original Persian:
    https://ganjoor.net/eraghi/divane/ghazale/sh180/

  32. Zac
    July 31, 2018 at 6:58 pm

    Hakim Abul-Majd Majdūd ibn Ādam Sanā’ī Ghaznavi (Persian: حکیم ابوالمجد مجدود ‌بن آدم سنایی غزنوی‎) was a Persian poet who lived in Ghazni between the 11th century and the 12th century in what is now Afghanistan.

  33. Kent
    August 12, 2018 at 11:09 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful and transparent research. It is a breath of fresh air in today’s world. We need more of it.

  34. Ginger
    September 2, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Clearly Judy #13 is the right one here.
    I too just purchased the iBook of “The Book of Everything”
    The poem from the Shape of Water is nearly an exact duplication of Priya Hemenway’s translation.

  35. Maha yehia
    September 3, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Thank you!

  36. Graeme Bregani
    September 4, 2018 at 2:34 am

    Thank you all.
    You have opened my ears in my search for silence.

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