The Poetry and Classical Poets of Iran

The Poetry and Classical Poets of Iran

Main forms and rhythmic patterns

The ancient Persian language of the Achaemenid Empire, preserved in numerous cuneiform inscriptions, was an Indo-European language with strong affinities with Sanskrit and Avestan (the language of Zoroastrian sacred texts). After the fall of the Achaemenids, the ancient language evolved into Middle Persian or Pahlavi (a name derived from Parthavi meaning Parthian) in the province of Pars. Pahlavi was used throughout the Sassanid period, although little remains today of what must have been considerable literature. About 100 texts are preserved in Pahlavi, most on religion and all in prose. However, the Pahlavi novel collections provided much of the material for Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.

After the Arab conquest, knowledge of Arabic became necessary, since it was not only the language of the new rulers and the State, but also the religion that they brought with them and, later, the new knowledge. Although Pahlavi continued to be spoken in private life, Arabic dominated 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 heavily infused with Arabic words. This was the modern Persian spoken today.

Arabic continued to be used in Iran, albeit on a decreasing scale, like Latin in Europe, reserved for scholars. As such, it was used by Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna), Al-Biruni, Rhazes, Al Ghazali, and others. In general, the use of Arabic decreased; Persian developed rapidly and spread its influence to neighboring countries for a long time. In India, the Persian language and poetry became popular with rulers, and Persian was adopted as the official language at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Thereafter it spread and later merged with Hindi, giving rise to the Urdu language.

A notable feature of Persian is how little it has changed in thousands of years as a literary language. Thus, the poems of Rudaki, the first notable Persian poet, who died in 941, are perfectly intelligible to the modern reader. Persian literature also has a number of notable characteristics, the most striking of which is the exceptional importance of poetry. Until recently, dramas and novels were hardly ever written; prose works were mostly limited to history, geography, philosophy, religion, ethics, and politics, and poetry was the main medium of artistic expression. Classical Persian literature was produced almost entirely under royal patronage, hence the frequency of eulogy verses. An influence at least as strong was religion, and in particular Sufism, which inspired an extraordinarily high proportion of mystical poetry.

Persian Poetry

Classical Persian poetry is always rhymed. The main verse forms are: qasida, masnavi, ghazal and ruba’i. Qasida or ode is a long single-rhyme poem, generally of a panegyric, didactic or religious character. The masnavi, written in rhymed couplets, is used for heroic, romantic or narrative verse. The Ghazal (ode or lyric or love poem) is a relatively short poem, generally of a loving or mystical nature and that varies from four to sixteen couplets, all in a rhyme. A convention of the ghazal is the introduction of the poet’s pseudonym (takhallus) in the last verse. The ruba’i is a quatrain with a particular meter, and a collection of quatrains is called “Ruba’iyyat”. Finally, a collection of ghazals and other verses by a poet, arranged alphabetically according to rhyme, is known under the name “Divan”.

The age of medieval poets

The Ghaznavid and Early Seljuk periods (1037-1153)

Four hundred poets are said to have been associated with the court of Sultan Mahmud; Among them, the most notable were Unsuri, Mahmud’s greatest eulogist, followed by Farrokhi, Manuchehri and Asadi. Among the prose writers, the most famous was Biruni, author of the “Chronology of Ancient Nations”, which he wrote exclusively in Arabic.

The Seljuk period, considered the second classical period of Persian literature, is rich in prose and poetry. Among the most famous prose works are Qazali’s “The Revival of the Sciences of Religion” in Arabic and his Persian summary entitled Kimiya-ye Sa’adat (The Alchemy of Happiness). The “History of the Ghaznavids” of Beyhaqi. “Siasat Nameh”, a treatise on the art of the government of Nizam ul-Mulk, minister of Alp Arslan and Malik Shah. The funny “Qabus Nameh” by Kai Kawus, translated by Professor Levy as “Mirrors of princes.” Nasr Ullah’s collection of fables of animals of Indian origin, entitled “Kalila va Dimna”. The fascinating “Chahar Maqala” or Four Discourses by Nizami Aruzi. Ibn al-Balkhi’s “Fars Nameh” and the famous poetic treatise by Rashid-i Vatvat. Four of these works: Chahar Maqala, History of Beyhaqi, Qabus Nameh and Siasat Nameh are considered by the poet Bahar as the four great masterpieces of early Persian prose.

Various authors from this period wrote both prose and poetry. One of the most brilliant was Nasir Khosrow, the author of some 15 prose works and 30,000 verses, of which less than half are preserved. His best known prose work is “Safar Nameh”, an account of his journey. Most of Nasir Khosrow’s poems are lengthy odes, mainly on religious and ethical subjects, and they are famous for their purity of language and incredible technical skill. According to Mirza Mohammad Qazvini, Naser Khosrow’s name should be added to that of the six poets: Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Anvari, Rumi, Saadi and Hafez, who “almost everyone” agrees that they are the six greatest Persian poets, each one in his field. Other famous poems of the time are the works of the mystics Ansari, Abu Sa’id and Baba Taher of Hamadan, the romantic epic of Gorgani “Vis and Ramin” and the Divanes of Masud-e Saad-e Salman and Rumi. Seven other poets of the time are of extraordinary fame and brilliance. They are Khayyam, Sana’i, Moezzi, Anvari, Khaqani, Nizami and Attar.


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