Persian Poetry Through the Ages

Definition Oregon Teaching Standards for Literature: Understand how literature records, reflects, communicates and influences human events.

Content: Read selections from a variety of cultures and time periods and recognize distinguishing characteristics of various literary forms. Analyze how literary works both influence and are influences by history, society, culture and the author's life experiences.



Photo: Hafez Shrine in Shiraz

Persian Poetry Through the Ages
By Charlotte Albright, University of Washington
For Secondary Level Students

Persian poetry has been one of the primary arts forms in Iranian culture for the past three thousand years. Iranians have always delighted in telling tales and giving moral lessons through poetry. Many people, even people with little formal education, memorize huge amounts of poetry and enjoy reciting it at family gatherings or for their friends. The poems may be enjoyed by themselves or they may be used to illustrate events in people’s daily lives. Poets are so revered that in all the larger cities, come streets have been named after famous poets, such as Ferdowsi or Saadi.

The Persian that is spoken in Iran today began to be spoken after the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD. This language is called Modern Persian. During these times poets often lived in the courts of the kings where their job was to tell stories, glorify the kings, and give lessons and advice to the kings, princes and other powerful people about how to be good and just. The earliest remaining examples of poetry in Modern Persian come from the ninth century. One of these earliest poets was Rudaki, who wrote:

Young or old we die
For every neck a noose
Though the rope be long for some,
Struggle or calm
Broken or a king
Life’s but wind
And a dream
Perhaps describing
Come other thing
And with the end
All will be the same again
And all will be well. 1

One of the greatest and best known Persian poets was a man named Abolqasem Ferdowsi who lived about 1000 AD. He put into verse the old legends of Iranians before the Arab conquest and conversion to Islam. Ferdowsi’s monumental work is an epic poem called the Shahname, or Book of Kings. It is 50,000 couplets long (a couplet is poetic unit of two lines, rhyming at the end). The poem includes stories from the old Persian legends in which kings and heroes dressed in animal skins and fought with demons, dragons and all kinds of real and mythical beasts. The poetic story continues on up to historical times and ends with the Arab conquest of Iran.

One of the most famous of the stories in the Shahname concerns two legendary heroes Rostam and Sohrab, both enormously strong, courageous fighters. Rostam is Sohrab’s father, but the two have never met-they have never even seen pictures of one another. Each knows about the other, but when they face each other for the first time, it is on opposing sides of a battlefield. Neither is willing to reveal his true identity to the other because each suspects the other of deceit. Only after Rostram has given Sohrab a mortal wound, does he discover that it is his son he has slain. The following excerpt from the poem describes the fierce battle:

With blows they shattered both their polished swards
Such blows as these will fall on Judgment Day.
And then each hero seized his heavy mace.
Although their mounts were panting and both heroes
Were in pain, they bent them with their might.
The armor flew from their two steeds; the links
That held their coats of mail burst wide apart.
Not one could lift a hand or arm to fight.
Their bodies ran with sweat, dirt filled their mouths,
And hear and thirst had split their tongues.
Once more they faced each other
On that plain—the son
Exhausted and the father weak with pain.
Oh, World! How strange your workings are! From you
Come both what’s broken and what’s whole.
Of these two men, not one was stirred by love.
Wisdom was far off, the face of love not seen.
From fishes in the sea, to wild horse on
The plain, all beasts can recognize their young,
But man, who’s blinded by his wretched pride,
Alas, cannot distinguish son from foe. 2

Persians have written poetry on many subjects: love—both romantic love and love of God, fate and philosophy, for example. Some poetry is serious, but much contains an element of humor. Mystical poetry, or poetry exploring the relationship of humans to God and how humans know and love God, has been the subject of a great deal of Persian poetry. Farid ud-Din Attar, a thirteenth century poet from eastern Iran, wrote man works on mysticism. His best known is called Manteq ut-Tayr, or Conference of the Birds. In this allegorical poem, a flock of birds go searching for their leader (a symbol of God). When, after many trials and difficulties, the flock finally reaches the leader, they see the beauty and greatness of the leader reflected in all of them! Manteq ut-Tayr is full of many moral lessons as well. Here is a sample based on the story of Joeseph, which occurs in both the Old Testament in the bible and in the Muslim holy book, the Koran. (Like the Shahname, this poem is all in end-rhyming couplets. Here, the talented translator has transformed rhyming Persian into rhyming English!)

The old woman who wanted to buy Joeseph
When Joeseph was for sale, the market-place
Teemed with Egyptians wild to see his face;
So many gathered there from dawn to dusk
The asking price was five whole tubs of musk.
An ancient crone pushed forward—in her hand
She held a few threads twisted strand by strand;
She brandished them and yelled with all her might:
“Hey, you, seller of the Canaanite!
I’m mad with longing for this lovely child—
I’ve spun these threads for him, he drives me wild!
You take the threads and I’ll take him away—
Don’t argue now, I haven’t got all day!”
The merchant laughed and said: “Come on, old girl,
It’s not for you to purchase such a pearl—
His value’s reckoned up on gold and Jewels;
He can’t be sol for threads to ancient fools!”
“Oh, I knew that before,” the old crone said;
“I knew you wouldn’t sell him for my thread –
But it’s enough that everyone will say
‘She bid for Joeseph on that splendid day’.”
The heart that does not strive can never gain
The endless kingdom’s gates and lives in vain;
It was pure aspiration made a king
Set fire to all he owned—everything—
And when his goods had vanished without trace
A thousand kingdoms sprang up in their place.
When noble aspiration seized his mind,
He left the world’s corrupted wealth behind—
Can one who craves the sun be satisfied
with petty ignorance? Is this his guide? 3

Another collection of moral tales that is very popular with Iranians down to present day is the Golestan of Saadi, a poet who lived in the city of Shiraz in the thirteenth century. Golestan means “rose garden” and the title means that the collection of short poems and rhymed prose is like a bouquet of sweet smelling flowers. The tales celebrate virtues we all recognize and respect—honesty, justice, generosity, and quick wit. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a preface to the first American English translation of Saadi’s Golestan and some of his pithy stories even fou d their way into Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Here is one rose for you to smell:

An unjust king once asked a dervish, “What kind of worship is best?”
“For you, sleep,” the dervish replied, “so the people may have some rest from your tyranny.”
I saw a tyrant once, who slept for half a day.
“Sleep on!” I Said. “so your evil may doze as well.”
He was a better ruler asleep than awake!
Such kings should seek their rest beneath the earth. 4

Persian poets wrote poems on the themes and topics discussed so far until the 1800s. Then, as Iranians became familiar with Western literatures, they began to use prose as well as poetry to express their ideas in writing. By the twentieth century Iranian writers had begun to write novels, short stories, plays, and essays, as well as poetry. Now, in addition to some of the traditional poetic themes, writers of poetry and prose discuss the struggle for greater freedom, social justice, and women’s rights.

One of the most famous twentieth century poets was a woman, Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Her poems discuss how she felt about being a girl and a woman in Persian society, and many poems are critical of that society. Many people were outraged at the frankness with which she talked about her feelings in these poems, other people regarded the poems as revolutionary. Unfortunately, Farrokhzad died in an automobile crash when she was only 32 years old.

The Bird Was Only a Bird
The bird said: “What smells what sunshine, ah
spring has come
and I will go searching for my mate.”
The bird flew away from the portico’s edge
like a message it flew off and disappeared.
The bird was small
the bird did not think
the bird did not read the paper
the bird was not in debt
the bird did not know people.
The bird flew through the air
above the red lights
at the height of oblivion
and experienced madly
blue moments.
The bird, ah, was only a bird. 5

Footnotes:
1. Pound, p.73
2. Clinton, pp 117-119
3. Attar, pp 132-133
4. Translation by Jerome W. Clinton
5. Karimi Hakkak, p. 147

Glossary:

1. epic poem- a long narrative poem.
2. allegory- a story or picture which illustrates an idea
3. musk- a greasy secretion of the male musk deer used in perfume
4. pithy- speech which is precise and short
5. crone- an old lady
6. prose- ordinary unpoetic speech or writing
7. dervish- a member of a Muslim religious order
8. portico- a kind of porch or walkway


Discussion Questions:

  1. In the poem by Rudaki, what does he mean “for every rope a noose, though the rope be long for some?”
  2. What do you think Ferdowsi is trying to tell us in the excerpt from the Shahname about how deceit and pride affect our lives? Do you think Rostam and Sohrab would have fought if they had known they were father and son?
  3. Look up the passages in the Bible (Book of Genesis from Chapter 37 to the end) and the Koran (Sura XII) concerning Joseph. How do they differ?
  4. In the passage from Mantiq ut-Tayr quoted here, which lines are humorous? What is the moral of the story?
  5. In the poem by Farrokhzad, she compares people and a bird. Why is she apparently envious of the bird?

Bibliography:

Attar, Farid al-Din. The Conference of Birds. Translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. New York and London: Viking Penguin, 1984.
Browne, Edward G. A Literary History of Persia. Volumes 1-4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam: from the Persian National
Epic, the Shahname of Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi. Translated and with an Introduction and notes by Jerome W. Clinton. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.
Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad. An Anthology of Modern Persian Poetry. Boulder: Westview
Press, 1978.
Pickethall, Mohammed Marmaduke. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. New York:
Mentor Book, no date.
Pound, Omar S. Arabic and Persian Poems. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press,
1986.
Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. Persian Literature. Albany: SUNY Press, 1988.

See also:

Iranian Poetry Overview:
http://www.bestirantrave...

Iranian Women Poets:
http://www.womeninworldh...

Submitted by faramarz on Wed, 02/06/2008 - 10:00pm.