Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Persian Poetry & Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh” by Annie Castillo

Didactic and Epic Poetry Analysis

Didactic and epic poetry are both cornerstones of the Persian literary craft. Among the most masterful of poets is Ferdowsi, whose epic poem Shahnameh tells both real and fictionalized stories about the Persian Empire. This “book of kings” is not only enormous in length, but in importance, too: Shahnameh “echoes the collective identity of all Persian-speaking people…and ecompasses the codes of moral conduct, chronicles, and other narrative poems.” Over the course of its 60,000 couplets, Shahnameh delves into moral and ethical dilemmas by telling the stories of battle and warriors. As one excerpt so aptly summarizes, “in everyone with every matter be just.” Indeed, I was impressed to find this sentiment echoed throughout the epic. In one poem, Zal dissuades the demon-tempted King Kaykavus from pursuing a greedy campaign to seize the free Mazandaran:

“Don’t, for the sake of covetousness, 

Plant a tree with the blood of a number of famous men,

For its fruit and growth will be a curse. 

Such is not the custom of former kings.”

Later in the epic, Rostam implores his son to be lenient, and not quick to declare war. Only after Faramaz has tried to use “soft language” and “be upstanding with your own people” may he “use rougher language.” And “then, seek battle” if all else fails. Ferdowsi not only writes on the importance of ethics in starting wars, but also on the necessity of fairness during and after battle. For example, Noushirvan orders humane treatment of Roman captives, declaring that “We will return [all unweaned infants] to their mothers,/with light hearts and wanting for nothing.” And in response to someone’s suggestion that he beheads the King of Mokran’s corpse, Kaykahasrow returns that “we must not consider such an act.” Instead, Kaykahasrow orders that they “prepare a grave with musk and rosewater,/like such as would benefit a king’s sleeping place.” These examples of humility, mercy, and justice in the climate of war — certainly the most chaotic environment, where brutality and domination are rampant — are inspiring to me. I am glad to know that a work promoting level-headedness and ethics, even in the midst of war, has such a large reach. 

Didactic poems, unlike epic poems, contain quick, impactful verse adorned with small jewels of insight. More often than not, these promote kindness, patience, piety, and other similarly virtuous traits. For example, one excerpt of Rumi’s “Reality and Appearance” reads: 

“’Tis light makes colour visible: at night

Red, green, and russet vanish from thy sight.

So to thee light by darkness is made known:

All hid things by their contraries are shown.

Since God hath none, He, seeing all, denies

Himself eternally to mortal eyes.

From the dark jungle as a tiger bright,

Form from the viewless Spirit jumps to light.

When waves of thought from Wisdom’s Sea profound

Arose, they clad themselves in speech and sound.

The lovely forms a fleeting sparkle gave,

Then fell and mingled with the falling wave.

So perish all things fair, to readorn

The Beauteous One whence all fair things were born.” 

This poem is religious in nature, and assures readers that God is there, even though he cannot be seen and “denies himself eternally to mortal eyes.” This line seems to speak directly to those who question their faith when they seem what atrocities exist. How can God be real, they might ask, when such horrible things happen? I know I have certainly asked the question myself. Rumi’s work responds that nothing exists without its opposite. Hardship and triumph go hand-in-hand, just as night and day create meaning with their contrast. And just as God is unseeable, Rumi writes, he is real and present at all times. 

Sa’di preaches kindness and patience in his didactic poem, “Compassion,” which has quickly become my favorite:

“Crush not yon ant, who stores the golden grain:

He lives with pleasure, and will die with pain:

Learn from him rather to secure the spoil

Of patient cares and persevering toil.” 

Instead of crushing the ant to take his grain, Sa’di encourages us to “learn from him rather.” Not only will this spare the creature who “lives with pleasure, and will die with pain,” but it will also teach us to earn for ourselves the rewards of “patients cares and persevering toil” — both in agriculture and in life. Yasimi, too, writes life lessons with his didactic verse, reminding us in “Socrates’ House” that material goods are not the purpose of life. In response to his friend’s concerns that the house was not as grand as its owner, Socrates responds: 

“Though my small cabin is little worth,

It’s everything I require on earth;

All I pray is, that it may be

Filled with friends who are true to me.”

I am again moved by this display of humility and perspective. Although it’s easy to be greedy, and all too-common to believe our wealth defines us, this poem refuses to believe that. It is not the quality of his home, Socrates says, but the quality of his friends within it. Indeed, didactic poetry offers us perspective wrapped up in the charm of short stories, offering us a chance to learn something new. 

Coffee Shop Musical Performance of Shahnameh

Shahnameh has real importance in Persian culture — and the performance of the epic in coffee shops is a testament to this. In the video, an ornately-costumed man stands onstage in the middle of a circular room. Tables with tea and mugs surround him, suggesting that patrons would stand to gather and watch his performance. He recites Shahnameh aloud with true theatrical enthusiasm, gesturing and maneuvering to tell the story as he speaks. He assumes more than one role, and skillfully plays both. His performance is evidence of the importance of Persian poetry and storytelling in the culture, and also how such performance is commonly enjoyed in society. His physicality draws us into the story as we watch, and though I don’t know what he’s saying, I know the importance of the lessons in Shahnameh. It’s a profound performance that highlights just how beloved Shahnameh is, and how his lessons resonate with us all these years later. 

Calligraphy experience so far 

My own foray into Persian calligraphy has brought me the opportunity to try the revered technique for myself. It is certainly an art: it clearly requires many thousands of hours of practice. Even with the guidance of a skilled professor and example texts, it feels new and difficult. Most importantly, it has been difficult to adjust to the Persian tradition of writing right-to-left, in contrast to the English way of left-to-right. The technique of calligraphy with a chisel-tipped marker is a new way of writing for me. Even studying how to adjust my grip took time and practice. I wanted to angle my marker just right, so that I could capture the rounded dots accenting letters, or the graceful swoop of a Ferdowsi poem. In the English alphabet, proportion seems easier to discern. There is generally a “line” or “framework” that all letters dwell within. Only upper-cased letters, or the tails of a letter like “g” or “y” strays from that zone. In Persian, though, there seems to be more variation in letter size and shape. Although I learned growing up to write carefully within the boundaries, Persian letters have dramatic tails and dashes, and it almost goes against my instincts to draw out long lines and letters. It’s special to practice writing the words while also saying them aloud. Although the sounds of Persian are unfamiliar to me, I’m glad to know a few lines by heart. 

Bibliography

Arberry, A.J., ed. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran: Yassavoli Publications, 2008.

Mahallati, Mohammad Jafar Amir. Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shi’i Islam. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

“گوشه هایی از نقالی ایرانی استاد مرشد ولی ترابی.” دالفک, هنر نزد ایرانیان است, www.dalfak.com/w/6e4c8.

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