Iran Handbook Literature: Teacher

Persian Language and Literature

Jerome W. Clinton

The Persian Language

Persian is an Indo-European language. Although geographically it is a language of the Middle East, its grammar and basic vocabulary are simiar to those of major languages of Europe, including English.

Modern Persian is the name used to distinguish the language currently in use in Iran from two earlier forms of Persian: Old Persian (about 500 B.C. to 350 B.C.) and Middle Persian (about 350 to 650 C.E.). Old Persian was one of the official languages of the court of Cyrus and Darius, but it survives in only a few monumental inscriptions. If there was a literature in Old Persian, we have no direct evidence of it. There was an extensive literature in Middle Persian, but it has survived only insofar as it was translated into Modern Persian and other languages.

Modern Persian, or New Persian as it is sometimes called, is the form of the language that became current after the Arab and Islamic conquest of Iran in the seventh century. After the conquest, the Arabic language gained currency among the Iranian elites and had a profound and far-reaching impact on the languages of ordinary life as well. Modern Persian is essentially an Arabized and Islamized development of Middle Persian that is written in the Arabic alphabet. It grew up as a camp and court language which served as the means of communication between Arabs and Iranians, and between the speakers of various Iranian dialects who came together in the courts of the Arab rulers and their Muslim Iranian clients.

Our earliest examples of Modern Persian date from the ninth century. By the end of the tenth it was already richly varied literary language, and such it has remained down to the present day. There have been significant alterations in the grammar, syntax, and lexicon of Modern Persian throughout this period , as is inevitable in any living language. As a consequence, the language of classical Persian literature - 10th and 15th centuries - is enough unlike the language of present day Iran to be better described as a dialect, much as the language of Shakespeare is a different dialect than that of twentieth century America. Different, that is, but widely studied and understood.

At present Modern Persian enjoys the statusof official language in three countries: Iran, where it is called farsi and is the native language of over half the population; Afghanistan, where it is called dari, or farsi dari and shares official status with Pushtu; and the Republic of Tajikstan, where it is called tojiki, and is the official "national" language of the republic. In addition, Persian is studied as one of the major vehicles of Islamic cultur in universities from Morocco to Indonesia, and enjoys particular esteem in India where it was displaced by English as the official language of education and government only in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Persian Literature

Persian literature has a long, complex and remarkable history. There were poets of note at the courts of Cyrus and Darius in the 5th century B.C., and many of the stories of the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, seem to belong to an even earlier time. Unfortunately, originals of most of the stories and poems from these earlier periods of Iran's history, like the originals of most the stories and poems from these earlier periods of Iran's history, like the languages they were writte in, have largely been lost, although some were preserved through translation into Greek, Arabic, and New Persian. The only period of Persian literature which we know in detail is that which begins after the Islamic conquest of Iran in the seventh century C.E. This period is a vast one and obviously can be subdivided into more comprehensible units.

First there was a period of transition that extended for two centuries after the conquest, when virtually nothing was written and when Modern Persian was in the process of being formed. Next there was a classical or golden age when many of the most famous works of Persian letters were composed. The golden age begins with Rudaki (d. 940-1), a master of both lyric and narrative poetry whose work has only survived in very fragmentary form, and ends with Hafez (d. 1390) the greatest master of short lyric poem (ghazal) in Persian.

The golden age was followed by a silver one whose poets, though often remarkably fluent, are not now so highly esteemed as their predecessors. This silver age, which dates roughly from the time of Jami (d.1492), continued on through the nineteenth century and is marked by the importation of such western literary forms as the novel, short story and play, and the modernization of the Persian literary language.

In the pre-modern or classical period, literature really meant poetry, but poetry took a number of forms. The first of these to produce a work of genius was the national epic, a long narrative poem known as the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings. The Shahnameh is a momumental work of nearly 50,000 couplets, which contains several cycles of stories about shahs, both legendary and historical, who ruled Iran, the heroes who served them and the villains who challenged their rule. The poet who gave the Shahnameh its definitive poetic form was Abolqasem Ferdowsi (d. 1020). So comprehensive and brilliant was his rendering of these stories that his Shahnameh has come to stand for the whole tradition.

The only story from the Shahmaneh that is best known in the west is that of the tragic encounter between Sohrab, who was separated from his father at birth, sets out while still a youth to seek him. Rostam, the greatest hero of the poem, knows that he has a son, but does not know that he has already grown to maturity. When they meet, neither is willing to reveal his true identity to the other since each suspects the other of deceit. Only after Rostam has given Sohrab a mortal wound does he learn that it is his son he has slain. This passage from Ferdowsi's The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam describes their first 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)

Persian has a number of lyric forms, but most notable of these is ghazal, which has striking similarities with the English sonnet. Like the sonnet, the ghazel is essentially a love poem that depends for its success on the skillful manipulation of highly refined language and conventional metaphors - cheeks like roses, teeth like pearls, and so on. Unlike the sonnet, it is permeated by a mysticism in which the beloved that the poet yearns for so eloquently is a metaphor of the divine. Virtually every Persian poet has tried his hand at ghazal, but by common consent the most remarkable master of the form is Hafez of Shiraz. Unfortunately, the qualities that mark his poems as exceptional are so intimately and essentially a part of the Persian language itself that no one yet has been able to translate his works into English with much success. This version by Elizabeth Daryush, from Arberry's Hafiz: Fifty Poems, captures something of the lyrical intensity of the original, however.

Where is the piou doer? and I the estray'd one, where?

Behold how far the distance, from his safe home to here!

Dark is the stony desert, trackless and vast and dim,

Where is hope's guiding latern? Where is faith's star to fair?

My heart fled from the cloister, and the chant of the monkish hymn,

What can avail me sainthood, fasting and punctual prayer?

What is the truth shall light me to heaven's strait thoroughfare?

Whither, o heart, thou hastest? Arrest thee, and beware!

See what a lone adventure is thine unending quest!

Fraught with what danger! Arrest thee, and beware!

Say not, O friend, to Hafez, "Quiet thee now and rest!"

Calm and content, what are they? Patience and peace, O where?

Although the quatrain (roba'i) is a briefer, less highly regarded form of ghazal, it is because of FitzGerald's astonishingly successful translation of The Rubiat of Omar Khayyam, the Persian lyric form best known in the west. Khayyam (1048-1131) was, in fact, more famous in his own time as a mathematician and astronomer, and many of the poems that bear his name were written by other poets, but in English his name stands for Persian poetry itself.

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:*

And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan's turret in a Noose of Light.

*Flinging a Stone into a cup was the signal for "To Horse!" in the desert. (FitzGerald note.)

Come, fill the Cup, and the Fire of Spring

The winter garment of Repentance fling:

The Bird of Time has but little way

To fly - and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Jalaluddin Rumi, the greatest Persian mystical poet, is best known for his Masnavi, a vast and rich compendium of mystical tales that is widely known throughout the Islamic world. Rumi, however, was a prolific author, who was also a master of shorter lyrics, including both the ghazal and roba'i.

Friend, our closeness is this:

Anywhere you put your foot, feel me

In the firmness under you.

How is it with this love,

I see your world and not you?


I reach for a piece of wood. It turns into a lute.

I do some meanness. It turns out to be helpful.

I say one must travel during the holy month.

Then I start out, and wonderful things happen.

Mysticism, or Sufism, is also an essential element in romantic and didactic Persian narrative poetry. And there are essentially two streams, the mystical romance and the collection of short tales. The best example of the former is surely Nezami's Layli and Majnun, a tale of star-crossed lovers that is widely popular in the East as Romeo and Juliet is in the West. In the latter category, the first real masterpiece of the form is the Manteq ot-Tayr of Farid od-Din Attar, and the most famous work by far is the Masnavi by Jalaloddin Rumi (d.1273), already mentioned. The following anecdote is taken from Attar's work. This examples from Darvandi and Davis's translation of The Conference of the Birds retells an incident from the story of Joseph, which appears in the Qur'an as well as the Old Testament.

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?


Persians have long taken delight in the tale which teaches a moral, especially when the tale is vividly told and the moral has wide application. The most popular example of this kind of literature is the Golestan (Rosegarden) of Saadi (d. 1292), a work that is widely read and imitated. Emerson wrote a preface to the first American publication of Saadi's Rosegarden, and some of his pithy homilies even found their way in to Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. The tales vary in length a good deal, and all contain a mixture of poetry and rhymed prose. The virtues they celebrate are ones we all recongize and respect- honesty, justice, generosity, humor, and a quick wit.


Study Questions

1. In the poem by Rudaki, what doe he mean "for every rope a noose, though the noose be long enough for some"?

2. What do you think Ferdowsi is trying to tell us in the excerpt from the Shahnameh about haw deceit and pride affect our lives? Do you think Rostam and Sohrab waould have fought is 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?