Country & History

Persian Literature

Contact Us

Art Arena

Arts & Crafts

Writer's Corner

Visitor's Book


The Development
of Iranian Literatures

Previous Page

The Development
of Persian Poetry


Next Page

Persian Bar

Basing a chronological division of Persian poetry on radical changes, we can distinguish no more than two periods of Persian poetry: one traditional, from the tenth to nearly mid, twentieth century; the other modernist, from about World War II to the present. Within the long period of traditional poetry, however, four periods can be traced, each marked by a distinct stylistic development.

The first of these, comprising roughly the tenth to the twelfth century, is characterized by strong court patronage, a profusion of panegyrics, and an exalted style (sabk-e fakher). One may define this style (generally known as Khorasani, from the association of most of its earlier representatives with Greater Khorasan) by its lofty diction, dignified tone, and highly literate language.

The second, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, is marked by the prominence of lyric poetry, the consequent development of the ghazal into the most significant verse form, and the diffusion of mystical thought. Its style is generally dubbed Eraqi because of the association of some of its earlier exponents with central and western Persia (even though its two major representatives, Sadi and Hafez, were from the southern province of Fars); it is known by its lyric quality, tenderness of feeling, mellifluous meters, and the relative simplicity of its language.

The third period, which extends from the fifteenth well into the eighteenth century, is associated with the Indian style of Persian poetry (sometimes called Isfahani or Safavi). It has its beginning in the Timurid period and is marked by an even greater prominence of lyric poetry, although it is somewhat devoid of the linguistic elegance and musicality of the preceding period. The poets of this period often busied themselves with exploring subtle thoughts and far fetched images and elaborating upon worn-out traditional ideas and metaphors.

The fourth period, from approximately the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, is known as the Literary Revival (bazgasht-e adabi).It features a reaction against the poetic stagnation and linguistic foibles of the late Safavid style, and a return to the Eraqi style of lyric poetry and the Khorasani style of panegyrics. One can certainly make a case for dividing this period into two parts: before and after the Revolution for the Constitution (1906-11). The latter part saw many attempts at modernizing Persian poetry by the introduction of new themes, colloquial language, patriotic subjects, and political and social satire; nevertheless, the formal aspect of Persian poetry resisted change, and major poets continued writing in the traditional styles.

The current phase of Persian poetry, which dates from World War II, is characterized by a radical break with the literary tradition of the past and by the introduction of fresh imagery and poetic forms.

i. Court Poetry.

Recorded Persian poetry began under court patronage, a continuation of the Sasanian and Abbasid practice. As a result, much of the earliest classical poetry is court poetry. The poets were to compose for formal occasions: major festivals, the birth of a son, deaths, conquests, and the like. Eulogy constituted the principal part of the panegyrics, but the poet was also expected to be entertaining. Therefore great attention was paid to the lyrical or descriptive preludes of the panegyrics The favorite form of panegyrics was the qasida, but occasionally narrative or didactic works in couplet form contained praise of the patron in their introductions, particularly when such works were commissioned by or dedicated to a ruler or grandee.

The ambiance of the court imposed a certain formality on its poetry. Diction was lofty, language elegant, and grammar impeccable. Much of its imagery, taken from battle scenes, banquets, palaces, gardens, flower beds, hunting scenes, polo, chess, drinking parties, and weaponry, mirrors the milieu of the court. The earliest poets also show a remarkable love of nature and acquaintance with flowers, trees, and birds, and their descriptions of nature are refreshing.

The earliest period of Persian poetry is marked by a hopeful and resilient spirit, and although its contemplative pieces betray age and experience, its lyric lines display a youthful and joyous mood. The deep-seated sense of melancholy that characterizes later lyrics is absent. The poet sings of his rather mundane love in a light-hearted manner, seeking pleasure where beauty lies. The chief representatives of this happy lyricism are Rudaki, Farrokhi (d. 1037-38), and Manuchehri (d. 1040-41); their lyrics appear generally as introductory preludes (tashbib or taghazzol) to their panegyrics.

Rudaki, attached to the court of Nasr b. Ahmad (913-43) of the Samanid dynasty, was (like the Sasanian minstrels) a poet-musician who wrote songs as well as qasidas. The first major Persian poet, he is generally considered the father of Persian poetry. Farrokhi, for his part, is the most readable of the court poets. His poems are lively and abound in descriptions of nature, be it the arrival of Spring or the onset of Autumn, garden flowers, clouds, or rain. He wrote his lyrics, one imagines, with a twinkle in his eye. Manuchehri, too, excels in descriptive poems. His fertile imagination, which poured out original images and metaphors, has given us some of the most attractive poems on vineyards, wine, and wine-making.

ii. Epic Poetry.

With Ferdowsi's immortal poem, the Shah-nama, epic poetry rose to the height of its achievement almost at its beginning. Hailed as the greatest monument of Persian language and one of the major world epics, it consists of some fifty thousand couplets relating the history of the Iranian nation in myth, legend, and fact, from the beginning of the world to the fall of the Sassanian Empire. Ferdowsi, who belonged to the landed gentry (dehqan) and was well versed in Iranian cultural heritage and lore, fully understood the sense and direction of the work he was versifying. His approximately thirty years of labor produced a magnificent epic of tremendous impact. By glorifying the Persian past in heroic and high-minded poetry he presented the Persian nation with a source of pride and inspiration that has helped to preserve its sense of identity over the centuries. Ferdowsi set the model for a host of other poets who followed his meter and style, but whose works never reached similar heights.

iii. Lyric Poetry.

Important as epics are, the heart of Persian poetry is its lyrics. In the poems of the tenth and eleventh centuries, lyrics appeared mostly in the introductory parts of panegyrics, as we have noted. But lyric poetry can be found in several forms; many romances, for instance, contain numerous lyric sections or lines, and quatrains have been frequently used to express the pains and passions of love. There are even qasidas, most notably by Sadi, given to lyrical themes. But the form par excellenceof Persian lyric poetry became the ghazal, which in some ways resembles the sonnet. In the twelfth century a number of poets, notably Sana'i (d. 1130-31), Khaqani (d. 1199), Nezami (d. 1209), and Attar (d. ca. 1220), were writing independent ghazals. By the thirteenth century, with major lyricists like Rumi (d. 1273), Eraqi (d. 1289), and Sadi (d. 1292), the ghazal had become indisputably the most favored form of Persian poetry.

With the passage of time, the spirited and youthful poetry of the earlier lyrics gained in tenderness and depth of sentiment. It was poets such as Anvari, Nezami, Khaqani and Attar who, although better known for other genres of poetry, contributed to this development of the ghazal into a heartfelt, intimate poem of love and its afflictions.

From about the twelfth century, lyric poetry was enriched with a spirituality and devotional depth not to be found in earlier works. This development was due to the pervasive spread of mystical experience. Sufism (Islamic mysticism) developed in all Muslim lands, but its literary expression reached its zenith in the countries located within the sphere of Persian cultural influence. As a counterpoise to the rigidity of formal Islamic theology and law, mysticism sought to approach the divine through acts of devotion and love rather than through mere rituals and observance. Love of God being the focus of the Sufis' religious sentiments, it was only natural for them to express it in lyrical terms, and Persian mystics, often of exceptional sensibility and endowed with poetic verve, did not hesitate to do so. The famous eleventh-century Sufi, Abu Sa'id of Mehna, for example, frequently used his own love quatrains (as well as others) to express his spiritual yearnings, and with the appearance of a vowed mystic poets like Attar and Eraqi, mysticism became a legitimate, even fashionable subject of lyric poems. Furthermore, as Sufi orders and hospices (khanaqahs) spread, mystical thought gradually became so much a part of common culture that even poets who did not share Sufi experiences ventured to express mystical ideas and imagery in their poems.

Mystical lyrics culminated in the ghazals of Rumi. Fired by an irresistible love of the divine and endowed with unusual poetic gifts, he wrote lyrics of extraordinary passion and musicality. The ecstatic fervor, explosive spontaneity, and rich but unconventional language of Rumi's lyrics place him in a class all his own. His Mathnavi, generally considered the greatest literary monument of Islamic mysticism, is a long poem of twenty-seven thousand couplets designed primarily to expound and preach his dynamic mysticism. His method is anecdotal, his tone frequently lyrical. The complexity of Rumi's mystical thought, wedded to a loose, "centrifugal" treatment, and his indifference to polishing his language do not make the Mathnavi easy reading, but the work contains many charming stories, moving passionate lines, and well-expressed profound thoughts that account for its great popularity.

As time went by, a set of poetic conventions began to crystallize, and the world of Persian lyrics became recognizable by a repertory of conventional themes, motifs and images. We meet stock characters and types such as the Lover, the Beloved, the Wine-Seller, the Shaikh, the Sufi, the Judge, the Mohtaseb (supervisor of religious observances), the Blamer, and the Rival; their behavior is predictable to a certain extent. The beloved, for example, becomes more disdainful and inaccessible than before, and the joys of union rarer than ever. Songs of love become mostly fervent laments of a spurned but dedicated lover who, afflicted by the pains of love and tormented by a fickle fate, has to endure interminable nights of separation. He sees his plight in the candle's silent and tearful burning, in the moth's perishing in the consuming flame of the candle, and in the nightingale's outpouring of love to the inconstant rose. The sorrow of love becomes his constant companion; he flouts the counsel of the wise, who advise him to abandon his unavailing passion. He is ready to give up his faith and sell out the two worlds for a fleeting sign of favour from the beloved; wandering aimlessly and suffering the heartless blame of both friend and foe, his best solace is wine and his favourite refuge the tavern. He abhors the tedious company of the self-righteous and those who pretend to virtue as much as he treasures the society of carefree drinkers, the rends, and those who flout social decorum. In today's terms he would be called an anti-establishment advocate of a counter culture, who prefers the free and sincere atmosphere of the tavern to the cant-ridden precincts of the madrasa and mosque. To exult in the liberating effects of wine and the virtues of wine-sellers and tavern buffs becomes as much a theme of the lyrics as love and beauty. The major representative of this poetry is Hafez (d. 1390), who perfected the paradigm of themes and imagery and provided the model for all the lyric poets who followed him.

It must be pointed out that the subject of Persian love poems, from the period of court poetry through later lyrics, is not always the woman but often a young man. Since the Persian language does not distinguish between genders, even in pronouns, this goes mostly unnoticed, but much of the imagery and many of the conventions of Persian lyrics become understandable only by appreciating this point. Young slaves, bought at markets or captured in wars, were often the subject of amorous feelings. They were trained for a variety of courtly professions, including playing musical instruments, serving wine at banquets as saqi, and of course also serving as pages, bodyguards, and soldiers. Some grew into accomplished companions (nadims), and others rose to high ranks. Ayaz, a favorite of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, ended as one of his major generals. It is not surprising, therefore, if the beloved is sometimes pictured carrying a sword, commanding a company, serving wine at an all-male party, being himself drunk or obstreperous, or surrounded by a host of eyeing admirers. Many of the metaphors and similes that describe the beloved in terms of weapons and soldiery is derived from this situation; so too is the fact that saqi passes practically as a synonym for ma'shuq or the beloved. The typical image of the beloved that emerges is an epitome of beauty beset by a host of lovers to whom he is indifferent; when importuned by them he flies into a rage, abuses them, and is liable to draw his sword or bend his bow. On the other hand, we see him occasionally as a sweet companion reciting poetry and playing music for his lover.

In order to better appreciate Persian lyrics one should take into account some of their other features. While a ghazal has a stringent formal frame, using the same strict meter and rhyme throughout, its content need not observe any thematic unity. In fact a ghazal often consists of a set of distinct themes or ideas, each expressed in a distich (bayt). Sometimes a common mood governs the lines of a ghazal, and less frequently a theme is pursued in several lines or throughout the poem, but the norm tends toward disparity. This situation also explains the fact that a number of traditional anthologies consist mostly of single lines.

It is this thematic disunity that has made it possible for the poet to juxtapose amatory, satirical, mystical, and didactic themes in the same ghazal. Of course, there is an ultimate connection among the ideas of a ghazal; it derives from the conventional repertory of themes and basic images that are already known to the reader, in the same way that the episodes and themes of passion plays are known to the audience in advance. Thus, although the ideas in a ghazal may appear disparate, the reader can always recognize them as belonging to a familiar "master design" that, in its totality, displays the unity of a coherent outlook. The poet, one might say, uses fragments of a mosaic; the reader, already familiar with the whole picture, is capable of recognizing its pieces from the total context....

....A new height in Persian lyric poetry is reached in the thirteenth century with Sadi, a versatile poet and writer of rare passion and eloquence. He holds a position in Persian literature, in terms of the power of expression and the depth and breadth of his sensibilities, comparable to that of Shakespeare in English letters. His sparkling ghazals display a youthful love of life and passion for beauty, be it natural, human, or divine. Sadi's dexterous use of rhetorical devices is often disguised by the beguiling ease of his locution and the effortless flow of his style; his masterly language has been a model of elegant and graceful writing.

Sadi is also the author of the best known work of Persian prose, the Golestan, a collection of moralizing and entertaining anecdotes and aphorisms written in elegant rhymed prose and interspersed with fitting lines of verse. Sadi's ideas, observations, moral convictions, and social comments, which appear in the Golestan in a lively, world-wise, and witty fashion, find a fuller expression, in a more sober and mature vein, in his Bustan (The orchard). Didactic in content, lyrical in tone, and anecdotal in composition, this poem is one of the masterpieces of Persian literature. It is probably the best expression of the humanitarian outlook on life and its moral dimensions that evolved in Islamic Persia among enlightened preachers as a result of the interaction between religious precepts and Sufi teachings; it embodies an ethical philosophy emphasizing moderation, justice, contentment, humility, detachment, and compassion for the weak and needy. An admirer of the ethics and the tolerant attitude of the venerable Sufis, Sadi often draws on the lives and sayings of Islamic mystics to illustrate moral virtue. His humanitarianism, however, avoids the pantheistic and ecstatic excesses of some of the extreme Sufis. His approach remains one of the applications of ethical and devotional principles to common circumstances and problems. Sadi manages to infuse his moral teachings with such lyrical charm that much of the Bustan reads like a moving ghazal in couplet form.

The culmination of Persian lyric poetry was reached about a hundred years after Sadi with Hafez, the most delicate and most popular of Persian poets. His ghazals are typical in their content and motifs but exceptional in their combination of noble sentiments, powerful expression elegance of diction and felicity of imagery. His world-view encompasses many Gnostic, mystical, and stoic sentiments, which were the common cultural heritage of his age. While Hafez's satirical lines against pretense and hypocrisy lend a biting edge to his lyrics, his philosophical outlook and Gnostic longings impart an exalted air of wisdom and detachment to his poems. But he is above all a poet of love who celebrates in his ghazals the glory of human beauty, the passion of love, and the exhilarating qualities of wine....

....It is true that some lines of Hafez's poetry, as with many other ghazal writers, are capable of being understood on two different planes, the sensuous and the spiritual. But these instances are relatively few, and there is no reason to believe that every time the word "cup" or tresses" occurs, a mystic meaning lurks behind it. Belief in a mystical "inner meaning" of Hafez's poetry represents the application of a bateni, or esoteric principle, which distorts his meaning and flies in the face of his poetic sense. Again, Hafez's satire of fanaticism and pretension in general, and of the pseudo-religious authorities in particular, hardly ever lends itself to mystical interpretation. This aspect of his poetry, although often mentioned, is not sufficiently stressed. Zakani's deserved fame notwithstanding, Hafez is the most notable satirist Persia has produced. Poignant gibes at the hypocritical shaikhs, judges, professional Sufis, and other pretenders to virtue form an integral part of his ghazals and (following his model) are a common theme of Persian lyrics. The liberal Hafez strongly felt the sting of pretense and cant; to express his outrage was as much a motive for his writing as were his aesthetic and amorous sentiments. But his subtle wit and his magnanimity keep his lyrics from being indignant or bitter. Siding with sinners and tavern dwellers, championing the Fends and the kharabatis - the "hippies" of his time - are essentially his protests against the narrow views and bigotry of the establishment, and part of his satirical thrust. To read mystical meanings into all this is to miss the intent and the sense of Hafez's poetry to the detriment of his real worth.

The ascent of Persian poetry ends with Hafez. Jami (d. 1492), a many-faceted poet of note, continued the tradition of the ghazal, as did many poets of the Safavid period (1502-1722) and the Mogul court in India. Vahshi (d. 1583), Naziri (d. 1612-13), Kalim (d. 1651-52) and Sa'eb (d. 1676-77) all wrote dainty lines and explored subtle poetic ideas, but by the time the Safavids rose to power, Persian poetry had lost much of its freshness and vigor and was becoming entangled in a web of farfetched ideas and images. The virile tones and clipped rhythms of early Persian poetry (the Khorasani style), which had given way to the passionate tenderness and fluent language of the lyric writers (the Eraqi style), now fell into languid rhythms, abstruse imagery, and often less-than-felicitous constructions (the Indian style). The outstanding example of these traits is the otherwise profound mystical poet Bidel (d. 1720), whose, lyrics frequently present a real challenge for decipherment.

iv. Didactic Poetry.

There are fewer themes less poetic or more tedious than the didactic, and yet wisdom (andarz) literature has long been associated with Iranian literary creations. Its roots are found in the gnomic writings of the priestly class of ancient Iran, and Middle Persian already possessed a good deal of andarz literature in the form of testaments, epistles, and collections of precepts. Judging from the Shah-nama, the Khwaday-namag must have also contained a good dose of didactic writing. Sassanian wisdom literature continued its existence after the advent of Islam in the form of Arabic and Persian recessions and adaptations and thus found its way into adab literature. Fortunately, in Persian didactic writings the tedium is generally relieved by illustrative anecdotes.

Good examples of early didactic literature are Sana'i's Hadiqa and Nezami's Makhzan al-asrdr. Attar's mathnavis also belong essentially to this genre, as does Rumi's major work, although their mystical intent and passionate tones give them a lyrical quality. On the other hand, the high-minded odes of the Ismaili poet and moralist Naser-e Khosrow (d. 1061) are engaging by virtue of the poet's noble thoughts, elevated diction, and original imagery. The true gem in this field is Sadi's Bustan, already mentioned.

v. Satire.

Social satire, distinct from invective, has had limited scope in Persia, no doubt largely because of the oppressiveness of autocratic rulers and fanaticism of the religious establishment. What satire exists is often characterized by ribald or abusive language, both shunned in polite society. Three figures, however, stand out as master satirists: Obayd-e Zakani (d. 1371), Hafez, and Iraj (1874-1925).

Zakani's satire is essentially based on humorous parody or sarcastic and derisive irony, often dressed in ribald language. His ribaldry, however, does not detract from his being one of the masters of prose style as well as one of the wittiest and most readable Persian writers. Hafez's satire appears in succinct and poignant lines in the course of his lyrics and is directed for the most part against those who abuse religion or religious offices through their selfishness and hypocrisy. The sharpness, wit, and impact of his satire are based primarily on mocking irony, paradox, and sarcasm. He is the only major satirist whose language remains invariably pure, polished, and courteous.

Iraj, a rather casual poet and yet a satirist of high standing, belongs to the post-Constitutional period. He normally focuses his satire on situational incongruity in order to reveal the weaknesses and ills of a society stricken by ignorance, superstition, and corrupt religious and secular leadership. With an acute sense of humor his language draws successfully on colorful colloquial idioms.

Most other satire in modern times has been published in humorous papers. Among the better known humorist-satirists of the present century are Dehkhoda (d. 1956), whose political, social, and anti-clerical satires in prose and verse won him considerable renown, and Zabih Behruz (d. 1971), whose one-act play, jijak 'Ali Shah, is a farcical satire on the Qajar court. His "Me'raj'-nama" (The book of the ascension [of the Prophet]) and "Gand-e badavard" (The wind-blown stinks), parodies of classical mathnavis, were quite popular for many years before they were finally published in 1983 in West Germany.

vi. The Literary Revival and Modern Poetry.

It was about the mid-eighteenth century that a group of poets in Isfahan, conscious of the impasse to which the belabored Safavid poetry had come, sought to restore the relative simplicity and more elegant diction of the old masters, thus initiating a revival in Persian letters. Among the early exponents of the movement were its articulate spokesmen, Lotfi 'Ali Azar, Asheq, and Hatef. The last is the author of the famous Tarji' band (Stanzaic poem); this lyrical poem of mystical purport, divided into five sections on the unity of being and the pantheistic view of the world, counts among the most noteworthy of Persian poetic compositions.

The poets of the Qajar period (1795-1925) remained faithful to the principles of the Literary Revival and maintained the linguistic clarity and eloquence associated with the old masters. Lyric poetry followed the style of Sadi and Hafez; panegyrics, which flourished as a result of court patronage, followed the Khorasani style (chiefly poets of the Ghaznavid and Seljuk courts). The creative energy of the poets, however, fell short of originality and was satisfied with emulating the poets of the past, grinding their worn-out clichés in well-composed and highly polished poems.

The conscious effort to return to the style of the old masters was symptomatic of a social phenomenon: a semiconscious realization of the weakness in the spirit and body politic of the nation, and a desire to counter it. The Shaikhis, and the attraction of the Babi movement for many intellectuals and patriots, may all be viewed as manifestations of a gradual social awakening, which eventually led to the reformist Constitutional Revolution. With the winning of a constitution from the Qajar king Mozaffar al-Din in 1906, the way was opened for Western-style modernization and concomitant mild changes in literary outlook and style. The pendulum of Persian history had swung once more to the west, only to reverse itself in 1979 with a vehement reaction against things alien in an attempt to remedy a social malaise, the root of which lay elsewhere.

Modern Persian poetry, which essentially continues the Qajar style, may conveniently be dated from the beginning of this century until World War II. Whereas the poets of the Qajar period produced sturdy and well composed but unoriginal poems, the twentieth-century poets proved more receptive to fresh ideas, new forms, and original imagery.

Three poets, of this period are worthy of particular note in terms of originality and attractiveness, one in the Indian subcontinent and two in Iran. Iraj (who has already been mentioned as a satirist) soon abandoned his earlier Khorasani style for a more intimate and idiomatic language, in which he wrote mostly casual and satirical poems, but also delectable lyrics. Parvin (1910-41), who remains, with Iraj, one of the two most popular poets of the period, is an eloquent writer of passionate humane feelings and ethical outlook. She is best known for her tender, fable-like moqatta’ats (pieces) written in moving tones with moralizing intent. The third is Iqbal of Lahore (1877-1938), an admirer of Rumi, who sought in a series of impassioned poems to expound his vision of Islam as a dynamic faith and a panacea for the social and political ills of the Muslim world. An intellectually endowed poet of fertile mind and reformist ambitions, his lively imagination is matched by his emotive intensity and mastery of expression. Iqbal may well be considered the most significant poet in the classical Persian tradition since Hafez. The present century also saw the last of the poets of note to write in the grand style of the Khorasani school, M.T. Bahar (1886-1951).


The Development
of Iranian Literatures

Return to top

The Development of Iranian Literatures Top of page

Copyright shall at all times remain vested in the Author. No part of the work shall be used, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the Author's express written consent.

Copyright© 1999 K. Kianush, Art Arena