‘O friends,’ expresses with exquisite passion and precision the agony of being separated from the one you love. The poem is attributed to a Hindu mystic poet named Mirabai, who lived in 16th-century India and was a notable devotee of the Hindu deity Krishna.
This poem (translated by Jane Hirshfield) offers a comprehensive understanding of the various elements that find fruition in her poetry, from the speaker’s perception of Krishna as both spiritual teacher and lover to their longing for an ecstatic reunion with them. The poem accomplishes this through a series of vividly fervent imagery and metaphors that capture the misery experienced by someone inflamed by overwhelming love.
Explore O friends,
‘O friends,’ by Mirabai unfolds as an expression of heartache by a speaker aching to be reunited with their lover.
‘O friends,’ opens with the speaker expressing both the burning intensity of their passion (“I am mad / with love”) and a sadness that “no one sees.” In the second stanza, they reveal that this love is directed at someone who isn’t currently with them. The speaker then describes how the separation has made it impossible for them to sleep peacefully and explains that their specific pain and longing are only understood by those who’ve gone through something similar. They emphasize that they’ve searched for a cure to their lovelorn anguish, but no cure exists except a reunion with their “Beloved.” The poem ends with the speaker invoking and praying to the “Dark One” (i.e., Krishna) to heal her heartbreak.
Over the centuries, thousands of poems have been attributed to Mirabai, but scholars are still unsure how many she actually wrote. Yet the folktales and legends inspired by her life have made her a monumental historical and cultural figure and a venerated Bhakti sant. Today, Mirabai’s poems are still sung in India as religious devotional songs called “bhajans,” and her poetry (including translated works) has remained timeless and impassionately affecting.
‘O friends,’ uses a handful of literary devices, some of which include:
- Visual imagery: “When the bed of my Beloved / is spread open elsewhere?” (5-6); “O Dark One” (14).
- Auditory imagery: “Mira calls her Lord” (14).
- Metaphor: “My mattress is a sword-point, / how can I sleep” (3-4); “Only those who have felt the knife / can understand the wound” (7-8); “only the jeweler / knows the nature of the Jewel” (9-10).
O friends, I am mad
with love, and no one sees.
The opening stanza of ‘O friends,’ begins with a declaration of love by the speaker. It also contextualizes their words as being spoken to an intimate and trusted group of people. The speaker reveals to these friends that they are “mad / with love” (1-2). Mirabai’s diction accentuates the overwhelming passion of such emotion.
My mattress is a sword-point,
how can I sleep
when the bed of my Beloved
is spread open elsewhere?
In the second stanza of ‘O friends,’ the speaker offers a metaphor to help illustrate their agony. Comparing their mattress to a “sword-point” (3) that pains them to sleep without their “Beloved” (5). The image is powerful and perfectly articulates the sharp and persistent discomfort of trying to sleep alone without the one you love by your side.
Only those who have felt the knife
can understand the wound,
only the jeweler
knows the nature of the Jewel.
In stanza three of ‘O friends,’ the speaker clarifies that their pain is understood only by those who have felt both the warmth of love and the sorrow of separation. Two more metaphors are used by Mirabai to communicate these sentiments. The first compares their heartache to a knife wound that only someone who possesses a similar injury can understand.
Then the speaker refers to their love for their beloved as a jewel that only a jeweler who “knows [its] nature” (10) can appreciate. The purpose of both metaphors is to underscore the intensely personal nature of such pain and ecstasy. Those who belittle it or disregard it do so only out of the ignorance of never experiencing either.
I have lost it,
and though anguish takes me door to door
no doctor answers.
In the fourth stanza of ‘O friends,’ the speaker mentions that they have lost something. This might be a reference to the jewel mentioned in the previous stanza, which symbolizes their beloved. The speaker describes going “door to door” (12) in an attempt to cure their anguish, which characterizes their yearning pain as an active search for a remedy. Tragically however, they find that “no doctor” (13) will answer their call, and they’re left to simply suffer through it.
Mira calls her Lord: O Dark One,
Only You can heal this pain.
‘O friends,’ ends with a third-person address that dissolves the line between speaker and poet. This stanza also introduces the poem’s religious undercurrents as the speaker narrates how “Mira calls her Lord” (14) to ask for relief. But this isn’t just the words of a heartsick person invoking the gods (in this case, Krishna) to alleviate their woes.
In keeping with Mirabai’s distinctive style, the speaker actually views the deity as their star-crossed lover. It is the absence of Krishna that they pine over and find so utterly unbearable. As a result, the only thing that could hope to heal it is their renewed presence — a rapturously bittersweet request that underscores the relationship between a religious devotee and the deity they passionately worship.
One interpretation of the poem’s theme might focus on the speaker’s desperate desire to be reunited with their beloved. In doing so, they believe they will find not just emotional fulfillment but spiritual bliss as well.
The poem was written by Mirabai to illustrate their ardent devotion to Krisha. All of her poems revolve around her unrequited desire to be spiritually united with the deity, giving voice to the intense veneration she holds for them.
This could mean that it is deliberately hidden from others (except perhaps close friends), or they are simply not acknowledged or validated. Either way, it develops a motif of suppression and restraint that contrast the speaker’s impassioned love and heartache. It might also reference Mirabai’s own life, as the folktales surrounding her often mention she was shunned and persecuted for her intense romantic devotion to Krishna.
The Sanskrit word that “Krishna” originates from means “black” and “dark coloured.” As a result, the deity is often depicted as having black or blue-hued skin. When the speaker refers to them as “O Dark One,” they are drawing attention to the mystical color of their skin and its beauty with reverence.
- ‘I Have Fallen in Love’ by Akka Mahadevi – this poem by another Indian poet expresses devotion to the deity Shiva.
- ‘Holy Sonnet II’ by John Donne – this poem is part of a famous series of religious sonnets.
- ‘Delilah’ by Carol Ann Duffy – this poem explores and gives more spotlight to the biblical character of Delilah.