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Persian Literature, Poems and Romance

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A certain amount of romantic interest has always attached to Persia. With a continuous history stretching back into those dawn-days of history in which fancy loves to play, the mention of its name brings to our minds the vision of things beautiful and artistic, the memory of great deeds and days of chivalry. We seem almost to smell the fragrance of the rose-gardens of Tus and of Shiraz, and to hear the knight-errants tell of war and of love. There are other Oriental civilizations, whose coming and going have not been in vain for the world; they have done their little bit of apportioned work in the universe, and have done it well. India and Arabia have had their great poets and their great heroes, yet they have remained well-nigh unknown to the men and women of our latter day, even to those whose world is that of letters. But the names of Firdusi, Sa'di, Omar Khayy?m, Jami, and H?fiz, have a place in our own temples of fame. They have won their way into the book-stalls and stand upon our shelves, side by side with the other books which mould our life and shape our character.

Some reason there must be for the special favor which we show to these products of Persian genius, and for the hold which they have upon us. We need not go far to find it. The under-current forces, which determine our own civilization of to-day, are in a general way the same forces which were at play during the heyday of Persian literary production. We owe to the Hellenic spirit, which at various times has found its way into our midst, our love for the beautiful in art and in literature. We owe to the Semitic, which has been inbreathed into us by religious forms and beliefs, the tone of our better life, the moral level to which we aspire. The same two forces were at work in Persia. Even while that country was purely Ir?nian, it was always open to Semitic influences. The welding together of the two civilizations is the true signature of Persian history. The likeness which is so evident between the religion of the Avesta, the sacred book of the pre-Mohammedan Persians, and the religion of the Old and New Testaments, makes it in a sense easy for us to understand these followers of Zoroaster. Persian poetry, with its love of life and this-worldliness, with its wealth of imagery and its appeal to that which is human in all men, is much more readily comprehended by us than is the poetry of all the rest of the Orient. And, therefore, Goethe, Platen, R?ckert, von Schack, Fitzgerald, and Arnold have been able to re-sing their masterpieces so as to delight and instruct our own days—of which thing neither India nor Arabia can boast.

Tales of chivalry have always delighted the Persian ear. A certain inherent gayety of heart, a philosophy which was not so sternly vigorous as was that of the Semite, lent color to his imagination. It guided the hands of the skilful workmen in the palaces of Susa and Persepolis, and fixed the brightly colored tiles upon their walls. It led the deftly working fingers of their scribes and painters to illuminate their manuscripts so gorgeously as to strike us with wonder at the assemblage of hues and the boldness of designs. Their Zoroaster was never deified. They could think of his own doings and of the deeds of the mighty men of valor who lived before and after him with very little to hinder the free play of their fancy. And so this fancy roamed up and down the whole course of Persian history: taking a long look into the vista of the past, trying even to lift the veil which hides from mortal sight the beginnings of all things; intertwining fact with fiction, building its mansions on earth, and its castles in the air.

The greatest of all Eastern national epics is the work of a Persian. The "Sh?h N?meh," or Book of Kings, may take its place most worthily by the side of the Indian Nala, the Homeric Iliad, the German Niebelungen. Its plan is laid out on a scale worthy of its contents, and its execution is equally worthy of its planning. One might almost say that with it neo-Persian literature begins its history. There were poets in Persia before the writer of the "Sh?h N?meh"—Rudagi, the blind (died 954), Zandshi (950), Chusravani (tenth century). There were great poets during his own day. But Firdusi ranks far above them all; and at the very beginning sets up so high a standard that all who come after him must try to live up to it, or else they will sink into oblivion.

The times in which Firdusi lived were marked by strange revolutions. The Arabs, filled with the daring which Mohammed had breathed into them, had indeed conquered Persia. In A.D. 657, when Merv fell, and the last Sassanian king, Yezdegird III, met his end, these Arabs became nominally supreme. Persia had been conquered—but not the Persian spirit. Even though Turkish speech reigned supreme at court and the Arabic script became universal, the temper of the old Arsacides and Sassanians still lived on. It is true that Ormuzd was replaced by Allah, and Ahriman by Satan. But the Persian had a glorious past of his own; and in this the conquered was far above the conqueror. This past was kept alive in the myth-loving mind of this Aryan people; in the songs of its poets and in the lays of its minstrels. In this way there was, in a measure, a continuous opposition of Persian to Arab, despite the mingling of the two in Islam; and the opposition of Persian Shiites to the Sunnites of the rest of the Mohammedan world at this very day is a curious survival of racial antipathy. The fall of the only real Arab Mohammedan dynasty—that of the Umayyid caliphs at Damascus—the rise of the separate and often opposing dynasties in Spain, Sicily, Egypt, and Tunis, served to strengthen the Persians in their desire to keep alive their historical individuality and their ancient traditions.

Firdusi was not the first, as he was not the only one, to collect the old epic materials of Persia. In the Avesta itself, with its ancient traditions, much can be found. More than this was handed down and bandied about from mouth to mouth. Some of it had even found its way into the Kalam of the Scribe; to-wit, the "Zarer, or Memorials of the Warriors" (A.D. 500), the "History of King Ardeshir" (A.D. 600), the Chronicles of the Persian Kings. If we are to trust Baisonghur's preface to the "Sh?h N?meh," there were various efforts made from time to time to put together a complete story of the nation's history, by Farruchani, Ramin, and especially by the Dihkan Danishwar (A.D. 651). The work of this Danishwar, the "Chodainameh" (Book of Kings), deserves to be specially singled out. It was written, not in neo-Persian and Arabic script, but in what scholars call middle-Persian and in what is known as the Pahlavi writing. It was from this "Chodainameh" that Abu Mansur, lord of Tus, had a "Sh?h N?meh" of his own prepared in the neo-Persian. And then, to complete the tale, in 980 a certain Zoroastrian whose name was Dakiki versified a thousand lines of this neo-Persian Book of Kings.

In this very city of Tus, Abul Kasim Mansur (or Ahmed) Firdusi was born, A.D. 935. One loves to think that perhaps he got his name from the Persian-Arabic word for garden; for, verily, it was he that gathered into one garden all the beautiful flowers which had blossomed in the fancy of his people. As he has draped the figures in his great epic, so has an admiring posterity draped his own person. His fortune has been interwoven with the fame of that Mahmud of Ghazna (998-1030), the first to bear the proud title of "Sultan," the first to carry Mohammed and the prophets into India. The Round Table of Mahmud cannot be altogether a figment of the imagination. With such poets as Farruchi, Unsuri, Minutsheri, with such scientists as Biruni and Avicenna as intimates, what wonder that Firdusi was lured by the splendors of a court life! But before he left his native place he must have finished his epic, at least in its rough form; for we know that in 999 he dedicated it to Ahmad ibn Muhammad of Chalandsha. He had been working at it steadily since 971, but had not yet rounded it out according to the standard which he had set for himself. Occupying the position almost of a court poet, he continued to work for Mahmud, and this son of a Turkish slave became a patron of letters. On February 25, 1010, his work was finished. As poet laureate, he had inserted many a verse in praise of his master. Yet the story goes, that though this master had covenanted for a gold dirhem a line, he sent Firdusi sixty thousand silver ones, which the poet spurned and distributed as largesses and hied him from so ungenerous a master.

It is a pretty tale. Yet some great disappointment must have been his lot, for a lampoon which he wrote a short time afterwards is filled with the bitterest satire upon the prince whose praises he had sung so beautifully. Happily, the satire does not seem to have gotten under the eyes of Mahmud; it was bought off by a friend, for one thousand dirhems a verse. But Firdusi was a wanderer; we find him in Herat, in Taberist?n, and then at the Buyide Court of Bagdad, where he composed his "Yusuf and Salikha," a poem as Mohammedan in spirit as the "Sh?h N?meh" was Persian. In 1021, or 1025, he returned to Tus to die, and to be buried in his own garden—because his mind had not been orthodox enough that his body should rest in sacred ground. At the last moment—the story takes up again—Mahmud repented and sent the poet the coveted gold. The gold arrived at one gate while Firdusi's body was being carried by at another; and it was spent by his daughter in the building of a hospice near the city. For the sake of Mahmud let us try to believe the tale.

We know much about the genesis of this great epic, the "Sh?h N?meh"; far more than we know about the make-up of the other great epics in the world's literature. Firdusi worked from written materials; but he produced no mere labored mosaic. Into it all he has breathed a spirit of freshness and vividness: whether it be the romance of Alexander the Great and the exploits of Rustem, or the love scenes of Z?l and Rodhale, of Bezhan and Manezhe, of Gusht?sp and Kitayim. That he was also an excellent lyric poet, Firdusi shows in the beautiful elegy upon the death of his only son; a curious intermingling of his personal woes with the history of his heroes. A cheerful vigor runs through it all. He praises the delights of wine-drinking, and does not despise the comforts which money can procure. In his descriptive parts, in his scenes of battle and encounters, he is not often led into the delirium of extravagance. Sober-minded and free from all fanaticism, he leans not too much to Zoroaster or to Mohammed, though his desire to idealize his Ir?nian heroes leads him to excuse their faith to his readers. And so these fifty or more thousand verses, written in the Arabic heroic Mutakarib metre, have remained the delight of the Persians down to this very day—when the glories of the land have almost altogether departed and Mahmud himself is all forgotten of his descendants.

Firdusi introduces us to the greatness of Mahmud of Ghazna's court. Omar Khayy?m takes us into its ruins; for one of the friends of his boyhood days was Nizam al-Mulk, the grandson of that Toghrul the Turk, who with his Seljuks had supplanted the Persian power. Omar's other friend was Ibn Sabbah, the "old Man of the Mountain," the founder of the Assassins. The doings of both worked misery upon Christian Europe, and entailed a tremendous loss of life during the Crusades. As a sweet revenge, that same Europe has taken the first of the trio to its bosom, and has made of Omar Khayy?m a household friend. "My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind may scatter roses" is said to have been one of Omar's last wishes. He little thought that those very roses from the tomb in which he was laid to rest in 1123 would, in the nineteenth century, grace the spot where his greatest modern interpreter—Fitzgerald—lies buried in the little English town of Woodbridge!

The author of the famous Quatrains—Omar Ibn Ibrahim al-Khayy?m—not himself a tent-maker, but so-called, as are the Smiths of our own day—was of the city of N?shap?r. The invention of the Rub?iy?t, or Epigram, is not to his credit. That honor belongs to Abu Said of Khorasan (968-1049), who used it as a means of expressing his mystic pantheism. But there is an Omar Khayy?m club in London—not one bearing the name of Abu Said. What is the bond which binds the Rub?iy?t-maker in far-off Persia to the literati of modern Anglo-Saxondom?

By his own people Omar was persecuted for his want of orthodoxy; and yet his grave to this day is held in much honor. By others he was looked upon as a Mystic. Reading the five hundred or so authentic quatrains one asks, Which is the real Omar? Is it he who sings of wine and of pleasure, who seems to preach a life of sensual enjoyment? or is it the stern preacher, who criticises all, high and low; priest, dervish, and Mystic—yea, even God himself? I venture to say that the real Omar is both; or, rather, he is something higher than is adequately expressed in these two words. The Ecclesiastes of Persia, he was weighed down by the great questions of life and death and morality, as was he whom people so wrongly call "the great sceptic of the Bible." The "Weltschmerz" was his, and he fought hard within himself to find that mean way which philosophers delight in pointing out. If at times Omar does preach carpe diem, if he paint in his exuberant fancy the delights of carousing, Fitzgerald is right—he bragged more than he drank. The under-current of a serious view of life runs through all he has written; the love of the beautiful in nature—a sense of the real worth of certain things and the worthlessness of the Ego. Resignation to what is man's evident fate; doing well what every day brings to be done—this is his own answer. It was Job's—it was that of Ecclesiastes.

This same "Weltschmerz" is ours to-day; therefore Omar Khayy?m is of us beloved. He speaks what often we do not dare to speak; one of his quatrains can be more easily quoted than some of those thoughts can be formulated. And then he is picturesque—picturesque because he is at times ambiguous. Omar seems to us to have been so many things—a believing Moslem, a pantheistic Mystic, an exact scientist (for he reformed the Persian calendar). Such many-sidedness was possible in Islam; but it gives him the advantage of appealing to many and different classes of men; each class will find that he speaks their mind and their mind only. That Omar was also tainted by Sufism there can be no doubt; and many of his most daring flights must be regarded as the results of the greater license which Mystic interpretation gave to its votaries.

By the side of Firdusi the epic poet, and Omar the philosopher, Sa'di the wise man, well deserves a place. His countrymen are accustomed to speak of him simply as "the Sheikh," much more to his real liking than the titles "The nightingale of the groves of Shiraz," or "The nightingale of a Thousand Songs," in which Oriental hyperbole expresses its appreciation. Few leaders and teachers have had the good fortune to live out their teachings in their own lives as had Sa'di. And that life was long indeed. Muharrif al-Din Abdallah Sa'di was born at Shiraz in 1184, and far exceeded the natural span of life allotted to man—for he lived to be one hundred and ten years of age—and much of the time was lived in days of stress and trouble. The Mongols were devastating in the East; the Crusaders were fighting in the West. In 1226 Sa'di himself felt the effects of the one—he was forced to leave Shiraz and grasp the wanderer's staff, and by the Crusaders he was taken captive and led away to Tripoli. But just this look into the wide world, this thorough experience of men and things, produced that serenity of being that gave him the firm hold upon life which the true teacher must always have. Of his own spiritual condition and contentment he says: "Never did I complain of my forlorn condition but on one occasion, when my feet were bare, and I had not wherewithal to shoe them. Soon after, meeting a man without feet, I was thankful for the bounty of Providence to myself, and with perfect resignation submitted to my want of shoes."

Thus attuned to the world, Sa'di escapes the depths of misanthropy as well as the transports of unbridled license and somewhat blustering swagger into which Omar at times fell. In his simplicity of heart he says very tenderly of his own work;—

  "We give advice in its proper place,
  Spending a lifetime in the task.
  If it should not touch any one's ear of desire,
  The messenger told his tale; it is enough."

That tale is a long one. His apprenticeship was spent in Arabic Bagdad, sitting at the feet of noted scholars, and taking in knowledge not only of his own Persian Sufism, but also of the science and learning which had been gathered in the home of the Abbaside Caliphs. His journeyman-years took him all through the dominions which were under Arab influence—in Europe, the Barbary States, Egypt, Abyssinia, Arabia, Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, India. All these places were visited before he returned to Shiraz, the "seat of learning," to put to writing the thoughts which his sympathetic and observing mind had been evolving during all these years. This time of his mastership was spent in the seclusion almost of a recluse and in producing the twenty-two works which have come down to us. An Oriental writer says of these periods of his life: "The first thirty years of Sa'di's long life were devoted to study and laying up a stock of knowledge; the next thirty, or perhaps forty, in treasuring up experience and disseminating that knowledge during his wide extending travels; and that some portion should intervene between the business of life and the hour of death (and that with him chanced to be the largest share of it), he spent the remainder of his life, or seventy years, in the retirement of a recluse, when he was exemplary in his temperance and edifying in his piety."

Of Sa'di's versatility, these twenty-two works give sufficient evidence. He could write homilies (Risalahs) in a Mystic-religious fashion. He could compose lyrics in Arabic and Turkish as well as in Persian. He was even led to give forth erotic verses. Fondly we hope that he did this last at the command of some patron or ruler! But Sa'di is known to us chiefly by his didactic works, and for these we cherish him. The "Bustan," or "Tree-Garden," is the more sober and theoretical, treating of the various problems and questions of ethics, and filled with Mystic and Sufic descriptions of love.

His other didactic work, the "Gulistan," is indeed a "Garden of Roses," as its name implies; a mirror for every one alike, no matter what his station in life may be. In prose and in poetry, alternating; in the form of rare adventures and quaint devices; in accounts of the lives of kings who have passed away; in maxims and apothegms, Sa'di inculcates his worldly wisdom—worldly in the better sense of the word. Like Goethe in our own day, he stood above the world and yet in it; so that while we feel bound to him by the bonds of a common human frailty, he reaches out with us to a higher and purer atmosphere. Though his style is often wonderfully ornate, it is still more sober than that of H?fiz. Sa'di is known to all readers of Persian in the East; his "Gulistan" is often a favorite reading-book.

The heroic and the didactic are, however, not the only forms in which the genius of Persian poetry loved to clothe itself. From the earliest times there were poets who sung of love and of wine, of youth and of nature, with no thought of drawing a moral, or illustrating a tale. From the times of Rudagi and the Samanide princes (tenth century), these poets of sentiment sang their songs and charmed the ears of their hearers. Even Firdusi showed, in some of his minor poems, that joyous look into and upon the world which is the soul of all lyric poetry. But of all the Persian lyric poets, Shams al-Din Mohammed H?fiz has been declared by all to be the greatest. Though the storms of war and the noise of strife beat all about his country and even disturbed the peace of his native place—no trace of all this can be found in the poems of H?fiz—as though he were entirely removed from all that went on about him, though seeing just the actual things of life. He was, to all appearance, unconcerned: glad only to live and to sing. At Shiraz he was born; at Shiraz he died. Only once, it is recorded, did he leave his native place, to visit the brother of his patron in Yezd. He was soon back again: travel had no inducement for him. The great world outside could offer him nothing more than his wonted haunts in Shiraz. It is further said that he put on the garb of a Dervish; but he was altogether free of the Dervish's conceit. "The ascetic is the serpent of his age" is a saying put into his mouth.

He had in him much that resembled Omar Khayy?m; but he was not a philosopher. Therefore, in the East at least, his "Divan" is more popular than the Quatrains of Omar; his songs are sung where Omar's name is not heard. He is substantially a man of melody—with much mannerism, it is true, in his melody—but filling whatever he says with a wealth of charming imagery and clothing his verse in delicate rhythms. Withal a man, despite his boisterous gladsomeness and his overflowing joy in what the present has to offer, in whom there is nothing common, nothing low. "The Garden of Paradise may be pleasant," he tells us, "but forget not the shade of the willow-tree and the fair margin of the fruitful field." He is very human; but his humanity is deeply ethical in character.

Much more than Omar and Sa'di, H?fiz was a thorough Sufi. "In one and the same song you write of wine, of Sufism, and of the object of your affection," is what Sh?h Shuja said to him once. In fact, we are often at an entire loss to tell where reality ends and Sufic vacuity commences. For this Mystic philosophy that we call Sufism patched up a sort of peace between the old Persian and the conquering Mohammedan. By using veiled language, by taking all the every-day things of life as mere symbols of the highest transcendentalism, it was possible to be an observing Mohammedan in the flesh, whilst the mind wandered in the realms of pure fantasy and speculation. While enjoying H?fiz, then, and bathing in his wealth of picture, one is at a loss to tell whether the bodies he describes are of flesh and blood, or incorporeal ones with a mystic background; whether the wine of which he sings really runs red, and the love he describes is really centred upon a mortal being. Yet, when he says of himself, "Open my grave when I am dead, and thou shalt see a cloud of smoke rising out from it; then shalt thou know that the fire still burns in my dead heart—yea, it has set my very winding-sheet alight," there is a ring of reality in the substance which pierces through the extravagant imagery. This the Persians themselves have always felt; and they will not be far from the truth in regarding H?fiz with a very peculiar affection as the writer who, better than anyone else, is the poet of their gay moments and the boon companion of their feasts.

Firdusi, Omar, Sa'di, H?fiz, are names of which any literature may be proud. None like unto them rose again in Persia, if we except the great Jami. At the courts of Sh?h Abbas the Great (1588-1629) and of Akbar of India (1556-1605), an attempt to revive Persian letters was indeed made. But nothing came that could in any measure equal the heyday of the great poets. The political downfall of Persia has effectually prevented the coming of another spring and summer. The pride of the land of the Sh?h must now rest in its past.


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