Persian Literature: Student


Persian poetry has been one of the primary art forms in Iranian Culture for the past eleven hundred years. Iranians have always deighted in teling 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 lives. Poets are so revered that in all the larger cities, some streets have been named sfter famous poets, such as Ferdowsi or Saadi.

The Persian that is spoken in Iran today began to spoken after the Arab conquest in the seventh century A.D. The 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 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 ninth century. One of these eary 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

Broke or a king

Life’s but wind- And a dream

Perhaps describing

Some other thing

And with the end

All will be the same again

And all will be well.

One of the greatest and best-known Persian poets was a man Abolqsem Ferdowsi, who lived about 1000 A.D. He put into verse the old legends of Iranian before the Arab conquest and before their conversion to Islam in a monumental epic poem called the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. It is 50,000 couplets long (a couplet is a poetic unit of two lines, rhyming at the end). The poem includes stories from the old Persian legends in which kings and heros sometimes dressed in animal skins and fought with demons, dragins, 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. For Iranians the Shahnameh has always been one of their most beloved poems. The poem has also long been associated with Persian identity, distinuishing them from their neighbors from a time even before the advent of Islam.

One of the most famous of the stories in the Shahnameh concerns two legendary heros, Rostm 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 the battle field. Neither is willing to reveal his true identity to the other because each suspects the other of deceit. Only after Rostam has given Sohrab a mortal wound, does he discover it is his son he has slain. The following excerpt from the poem describes the fierce battle:

Upon the Field of war they chose a narrow

Space to meet, and fought with shortened lance. When neither points nor bindings held,

They reined their horses in and turned aside,

And then with Indian swords renewed their fight,

Sparks pouring from their iron blades like rain.

With such blows they shattered both their polished swords.

Such blows as these will fall on Judgement Day.

And then each hero seized his heavy mace.

The battle had now wearied both their arms.

Although their mounts were panting and both heros

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.

Both mounts stood still; nor could their masters move.

Not one could lift a hand or arm to fight.

Their bodies ran with sweat, dirt filled their mouths,

And heat 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

Comes 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 horses on

The plain, all beasts can recognize their young.

But man, who's blinded by his wretched pride,

Alas, cannot distinguish son from foe. (675-688)


Persians have written poetry on many subjects: love (both romantic love ad love of God), fate, and philosophy, for example. Most poetry is serious, but some contain 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 un-Din Attar, a 13th century poet from eastern Ira, wrote many works on mysticism. His best known poem is called Manteq ot-Tayr, or Conference of the Birds. In this allegorical poem, a flock of birds go searching for their leader (a symbol for God). When, after many trials and difficulties, the flock finally reaches the leader, they see the beauty and the greatness of the leader reflected in all of them! Manteq ot-Tayr is full of moral lessons as well. Here is a sample based on the story of Joseph which occurs in both the Old Testament in the Bible and the Muslim holy book, the Koran. (Like the Shahnameh, this poem is all in end-rhyming couplets. Here, the talented transator has transformed rhyming Persian into rhyming English!)

The Old Woman Who Wanted to Buy Joseph

When Joseph 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 is reckoned up in gold and jewels;

He can't be sold for threads to ancients fools!"

"O, 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 Joseph 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 vanished without a 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?


Another collection of moral tales that is very popular with Iranians down to the preset day is the Golestan of Saadi, a poet wh lved in the city of Shiraz in the 13th 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 Emglish translation of Saadi's Golestan, and some of his pithy stories even found 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 the day. "Sleep on!" I said, " so your evil may doze as well." He was a better ruler aleep than awake! Suck kings should seek their rest beneath the earth.

Persian poets wrote poems on themes and topics discussed so far in 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 traditonal 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 women, Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Her poems discuss how she felt about being a girl and a woman in Persian society, and many of her poems are critical of that society. Many people were outraged at the frankness with which she talked about her feelings in the poems; other people regarded the poems as revolutionary. Unfortunately, Farrokhzad died in a 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.

Persian Proverbs

The bowl is hotter than the stew.

He got out of the pit and fell into the well.

Wherever there is a stone, a lame foot will find it.

The drowning man is not troubled by the rain.

The arrow that has left the bow will never return.

Death is the camel that lies down at every door

No lamp burns 'til morning.

Behind every smile lies two hundred tears.

Don't make a rope of hair.

Walls have mice and mice have ears.

Don't sell the bearskin before you have caught the bear.

The dog is a lion in his own house.

He who treats his mother badly will do worse to another.

When the snake is old, the frog will tease him.

I speak to the door, but the wall may listen.

The mud that you throw will fall on your head.

The snake must be straight to enter the hole.

When the cat and the mouse agree, the grocer is ruined.

Distance preserves friendship.

You cannot clap with one hand.


Epic poem- A long narrative poem.

Allegory- a story or a picture which illustrates an idea.

Musk- A greasy secretion of the male musk deer used in perfume.

Pithy- Speech which is precise and short.

Crone- An old lady.

Prose- Ordinary unpoetic speech or writing.

Dervish- A member of a Muslim religious order.

Portico- A kind of porch or walkway.