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The Persian Language

The Old Persian of the Achaemenian Empire, preserved in a number of cuneiform inscriptions, was an Indo-European tongue with close affinities with Sanskrit and Avestan (the language of the Zoroastrian sacred texts). After the fall of the Achaemenians the ancient tongue developed, in the province of Pars, into Middle Persian or Pahlavi (a name derived from Parthavi – that is, Parthian). Pahlavi was used throughout the Sassanian period, though little now remains of what must once have been a considerable literature. About a hundred Pahlavi texts survive, mostly on religion and all in prose. Pahlavi collections of romances, however, provided much of the material for Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.

After the Arab conquest a knowledge of Arabic became necessary, for it was not only the language of the new rulers and their state, but of the religion they brought with them and – later – of the new learning. Though Pahlavi continued to be spoken in private life, Arabic was dominant in official circles for a century and a half. With the weakening of the central power, a modified form of Pahlavi emerged, with its Indo-European grammatical structure intact but simplified, and with a large infusion of Arabic words. This was the Modem Persian in use today.

Arabic continued to be employed in Iran, though on a decreasing scale, as Latin was used in Europe -that is, as a language of the learned. As such it was employed by Avicenna, al-Biruni, Rhazes, Al Ghazali and others; indeed, many of the most famous names in Arabic literature are those of men of Persian birth. But in general the use of Arabic declined; Persian developed rapidly to become the vehicle of a great literature, and before, long spread its influence to neighboring lands. In India, Persian language and poetry became the vogue with the ruling classes, and at the court of the Moghul emperor Akbar Persian was adopted as the official language; spreading thence and fusing later with Hindi, it gave rise to the Urdu tongue. To the west of Iran, Persian heavily influenced the language and literature of Turkey; Turkish verse was based on Persian models as regards form and style, and borrowed an extensive vocabulary.

A notable feature of Persian is the small extent to which it has changed over the thousand years or more of its existence as a literary language. Thus the poems of Rudaki, the first Persian poet of note, who died in the year 940 A.D., are perfectly intelligible to the modem reader. Persian literature too has a number of noteworthy characteristics, the most striking of which is the exceptional prominence of poetry. Until quite recently there was practically no drama, and no novels were written; prose works were mostly confined to history, geography, philosophy, religion, ethics and politics, and it was poetry that formed the chief outlet for artistic expression. Classical Persian literature was produced almost entirely under royal patronage whence the frequency of panegyric verse. An influence of at least equal strength was religion, and in particular Sufism, which inspired the remarkably high proportion of mystical poetry.

Persian Poetry

Classical Persian poetry is always rhymed. The principal verse forms are the qasida, masnavi, ghazal and ruba’i. The qasida or ode is a long poem in monorhyme, usually of a panegyric, didactic or religious nature; the masnavi, written in rhyming couplets, is employed for heroic, romantic, or narrative verse; the ghazal (ode or lyric) is a comparatively short poem, usually amorous or mystical and varying from four to sixteen couplets, all on one rhyme. A convention of the ghazal is the introduction, in the last couplet, of the poet’s pen name (takhallus). The ruba’i is a quatrain with a particular metre, and a collection of quatrains is called “ruba’iyyat” (the plural of ruba’i). Finally, a collection of a poet’s ghazals and other verse, arranged alphabetically according to the rhymes, is known as a divan.

A word may not be out of place here on the peculiar difficulties of interpreting Persian poetry to the western reader. To the pitfalls common to all translations from verse must be added, in the case of Persian poetry, such special difficulties as the very free use of Sufi imagery, the frequent literary, Koranic and other references and allusions, and the general employment of monorhyme, a form highly effective in Persian but unsuited to most other languages. But most important of all is the fact that the poetry of Persia depends to a greater degree than that of most other nations on beauty of language for its effects. This is why much of the great volume of “qasidas in praise of princes” can still be read with pleasure in the original, though It is largely unsuited to translation. In short, the greatest charm of Persian poetry lies, as Sir E. Denison Ross remarked, in its language and its music, and consequently the reader of a translation “has perforce to forego the essence of the matter”.

In the following brief sketch of the vast field of Persian literature we cannot hope to do more than mention a few of the most eminent authors, and to devote a paragraph or two each to the most famous of all.

Early Literature

Though existing fragments of Persian verse are believed to date from as early as the eighth century A.D., the history of Persian literature proper begins with the lesser dynasties of the ninth and tenth centuries that emerged with the decline of the Caliphate. The most important of these were the Samanids, who established at Bokhara the first of many brilliant courts that were to patronize learning and letters. Here Abu Ali Sina, better known in the west as Avicenna, developed the medicine and philosophy of ancient Greece, and wrote numerous works that were to exercise considerable influence not only in the East but in Europe -where, translated into Latin, they were in use as late as the seventeenth century. Avicenna wrote mostly in Arabic, but composed an encyclopaedia — the Danish Nameh-ye Ala’i – in Persian.

The most famous of the court poets were Rudaki and Daqiqi. Rudaki, generally regarded as the first of the great Persian poets, wrote a very large quantity of verse, of which but little has survived. His style direct, simple and unadorned – was to appear unpolished to some of the over-elaborate versifiers of later ages, but appeals more to modem tastes. Daqiqi, a composer of epics, was commissioned to write a work on the ancient kings of Persia, but only completed a thousand couplets before his death. Some of these were later incorporated in the celebrated Shahnameh.
The Ghaznavid and early Seljuq Periods

It is said that four hundred poets were attached to the court of Sultan Mahmoud; of these, the most notable were Unsuri, the greatest of Mahmoud’s panegyrists, followed by Farrukhi, Manouchehri and Asadi. Of the prose writers, the most celebrated was Biruni, author of the “Chronology of Ancient Nations”, who wrote exclusively in Arabic.

The Seljuq era, regarded as the second classical period of Persian literature, is one rich both in prose and poetry. Famous prose works include Ghazali’s influential Revivification of the Religious Sciences in Arabic and its Persian summary entitled Kimiya-ye Sa’adat (The Alchemy of Happiness); Baihaqi’s History of the Ghaznavids: the Siasat Nameh, a treatise on the art of government by Nizam ul-Mulk, vizier to Alp Arslan and Malik Shah; the entertaining Qabus Nameh of Kai Ka’us, translated by Professor Levy as “A Mirror for Princes”; the collection of animal fables of Indian origin entitled Kalila va Dimna by Nasr Ullah; the charming Chahar Maqala or Four Discourses of Nizami Aruzi; the Fars Nameh of Ibn al-Balkhi, and the noted treatise on poetics of Rashid-i Vatvat. Four of the above works – the Chahar Maqala, the History of Baihaqi, the Qabus Nameh and the Siasat Nameh – are considered by the poet Bahar as the four great masterpieces of early Persian prose.

A number of authors of this period wrote both prose and poetry. One of the most brilliant of these was Nasir-i Khosrow, writer of some fifteen works in prose and 30,000 verses, of which less than half have survived. His best known prose work is the Safar Nameh, an account of his journey to Egypt. Most of Nasir-i Khosrow’s poems are lengthy odes, mainly on religious and ethical subjects; they are noted for their purity of language and dazzling technical skill. In the opinion of the scholar Mirza Mohammad Qazvini, the name of Nasir-i Khosrow should be added to those of the six poets – Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Anvari, Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez – whom “practically all” agree to consider the six greatest Persian poets, each in his special field. Other famous poetry of the period includes the work of the mystics Ansari, Abu Sa’id and Baba Tahir of Hamadan; the odes of Qatran; Gurgani’s romantic epic Vis o Ramin, and the Divans of the two Indian-born poets Mas’ud-i Sa’d-i Salman and Runi. Seven other poets of the period are of outstanding fame and brilliance; these are Khayyam, Sana’i, Mu’izzi, Anvari, Khaqani, Nizami and Attar.

The versatile Khayyam – “the only man known to me”, says Bertrand Russell, “who was both a poet and a mathematician” – is still perhaps the best known and most appreciated Persian poet in Europe and America. There was for long considerable skepticism as to whether he was in fact the author of all or any of the quatrains attributed to him, but the discovery recently of manuscripts more ancient than any of those previously known has removed these doubts.

Khayyam’s poetry was largely neglected in Iran until the end of the nineteenth century, mainly no doubt owing to the censure of orthodoxy. When Fitzgerald’s translation made him suddenly popular in the west the Iranians began to reassess his merits as a poet, and as we have seen, some native critics are now ready to accord him a place in the poetic Pantheon. Since he uses imagery common to the Sufis, Khayyam has often been hailed as a Sufi himself; but while some of his quatrains can be made to bear a mystical interpretation, the general impression of his work is one of hedonism tinged with a gentle melancholy, born of acceptance of the tragic transience of life, the power of destiny and man’s ultimate ignorance. The attitude is that of a materialist rather than a deist; indeed, he has with some justice been compared to Lucretius.

Sana’i, who wrote in a style similar to that of Nasir-i Khosrow, was the author of two great Sufi epics, the prototypes of the later masterpieces of Attar and Rumi, as well as of a huge divan. Mu’izzi, hailed by ‘Abbas Ighbal as “one of the artistic virtuosi of the Persian language”, wrote mainly panegyric verse in a highly elaborate style. Anvari, author of numerous poetical works, mostly panegyric, wrote in a difficult style, sometimes requiring a commentary; he is regarded by some as one of the greatest Persian poets. The poetry of Khaqani is even more mannered. The last three poets mentioned – Mu’izzi, Anvari and Khaqani – are all famous in Iran, mainly for their technical brilliance; but, being particularly difficult to translate, they are less appreciated in the west. This is not the case with the next two poets to be mentioned.

Nizami, born at Ganja in the Caucasus in 1140, was a prolific writer famous especially for his Khamseh or Quintet, a series of five great romances and epics. These consist of the Makhzan al-Asrar or Treasure House of Secrets, a mystical epic inspired by Sana’i; the popular romances Khosrow o Shirin and Laila o Majnun; the Iskandar Nameh or Story of Alexander, and the Haft Paikar, the life story of Bahrain Gur. Nizami’s style is original and, colorful; his works enjoyed great popularity, and episodes from his romantic poems were favorite subjects for miniature painters.

Farid ud-Din Attar, who was born possibly around 1136, was a great and an original poet who produced numerous religious and didactic works. He was essentially a mystic, and as such exercised a great influence on Rumi. The best known of his works, the Mantiq ut-Tair (translated by Fitzgerald as the Bird Parliament) , is a mystical allegory in which the birds all set off in search of the mythical Simorgh, whom they wish to make their king. The story, which symbolizes the quest of the soul for union with God, ends with their discovery that they have no existence separate from the object of their search.

The Simorgh then addresses them thus:

Pilgrim, Pilgrimage and Road
Was but Myself toward Myself, and Your
Arrival but Myself at my own Door…..
Come, you lost Atoms, to your Center draw
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wandered into Darkness wide
Return, and back into your Sun subside.

The Thirteenth Century

The Thirteenth century produced two poetic geniuses of the first rank, Sa’adi and Rumi. It is also particularly notable for histories, of which many were inspired by these singularly troubled times. Hamdullah Mostofi produced notable works both of history and geography, as well as an epic, the Zafar Nameh or Book of Victory, in 75,000 couplets, and Nasir ud-Din Tusi wrote on philosophy and logic. Three notable poets of the period are Iraqi, author of the mystical Lama’at or Flashes; Amir Khosrow, known as “The Parrot of India” and author of no less than five divans, and Zakani the satirist.

Foremost in the ranks of historical works are Juvaini’s Tarikh-i Jahan Gusha, an account of the Mongol conquests; the history of Juzjani, an important source book for the history of Moslem India; Rashid ud-Din’s great Jami’ ut-Tawarikh or Universal History, and the History of Vassaf. The style of the period tended to over-ornateness; Juvaini, according to Arberry, was “the most accomplished exponent of the prized art of verbal arabesque”, while Vassaf “modeled his style on Juvaini at his most intricate and verbose.” Of the writings of this school Levy remarks that it was “so filled with metaphor, allusion, and assonance, that the meaning was often lost in a tangle of verbiage”. By contrast, the work of the conscientious Rashid ud-Din, considered by Browne to be the best of all the Persian historians, is a model of clarity.

The Fifteenth Century onwards

The fifteenth century produced a number of notable historians – Nizam ud-Din Shami, author of the Zafar Nameh (a history of Timur); Yazdi, who wrote a work of the same name; Hafiz-i Abru, Khafi, Dowlatshah and Mir Khand, author of the immense Rozat as-Safa or Garden of Purity. Other prose writers of note , include Davvani, author of the Akhlaq-i Jalali, and Kashefi, who produced an elaborate prose paraphrase of Kalila va Dimna known as Anvar-i Suhaili (The Lights of Canopus). Fifteenth century poets include the Sufis Maghribi and Qasim-i Anvar, Katibi, the saintly Ni’mat Allah Vali, and Jami.

Jami, “universally regarded as the last eminent figure in the history of classical Persian literature” (Arberry) was born in 1414. A man of considerable erudition as well as of poetic genius, Jami produced some forty-five works, of which the best known are the Baharistan, the Divan, and the Haft Aurang or Seven Thrones, a series of four didactic works and three romances (Salaman o Absal, Yusuf o Zulaikha and Laila o Majnun) which he intended to rival the work of Nizami.

After Jami, who died shortly before the rise of the Safavis, Persian poetry is generally considered to have fallen into decline. There were indeed no poets of the very first rank after the fifteenth century, yet in this long period there was no lack of writers and poets of talent, some of them of great eminence.

Of the poets immediately following Jami, his nephew Hatif was a noted writer of romantic and historical epics; also famous were his pupils Asafi, Fighani (who earned himself the title of “The Little Hafiz”), Ahli and the Sufi poet Hilali. Later in the sixteenth century came the poets Hayrati, Kasimi, Kashi the panegyrist, Shani, Fasihi and Shafai.

Sa’ib (born 1677), the greatest literary figure of the seventeenth century, is considered by some to be the best Persian poet after Jami. In early life he spent some time in India as court poet to the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan, and returned to Iran to become poet laureate to Shah Abbas II. Sa’ib was a vivid and original poet who infused fresh life into the old forms and founded a new school. Also of note was his contemporary Fayyaz. A famous prose writer of the eighteenth century was Azar, author of the Atesh Kadeh (a biographical dictionary containing the lives of over 800 poets) as well as of a divan and a romantic epic. The prolific writer Hazin produced histories and an autobiography, as well as four divans. Also worthy of note is the poet Nejat.

In the nineteenth century Saba, poet laureate to Fath Ali Shah, composed a divan and an epic called the Shahanshahnameh; as a poet he was excelled by Neshat, also author of a divan. Qa’ani (died 1853), the best writer of the nineteenth century and perhaps the most outstanding since Jami, was one of Iran’s most brilliant and melodious poets. Well known prose works of the period include Nasir ud-Din Shah’s diaries of his three journeys to Europe and the literary biographies of the poet Reza Quli Khan. This period was marked by the increasing influence of European literature, noticeable in the works of the poet Shaybani and others.

The real revival of Persian letters came in the early twentieth century, when the growing desire for reform inspired numerous satires. One of the most outstanding figures of this period was Iraj Mirza (died 1926), a poet of great talent and champion of the emancipation of women. Other noted poets were Adib, Bahar, Lahuti, Shahryar, Aref and the poetess Parvin E’tesami. Poets of more recent decades include Nima, Ra’di, Khanlari, Islami, Gulchin, Shamlu, Akhavan Salis, Mas’ud Farzad and the poetess Foroogh Farrukhzad., Some of these poets have introduced verse forms new to Persian literature.

* The article is from a chapter by the same name in “Presenting Iran”, published by Ministry of Culture & Arts, Iran, Tehran, 1965.