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January.7. 2011


The Shahnameh and Persian Poetry.


By: Professor Dick Davis*

            No one doubts the importance of the Shahnameh in Persian culture; it is the vehicle by which most of the narratives of pre-Islamic mythology, legend and history survived the great watershed of the Arab conquest to become an integral part of the cultural self-image of Persian civilization; it is by far the longest poetic work that has remained within the central canon of Persian verse, and it comes virtually at the opening of the revival of vernacular literature in the north east of Iran, after the long lacuna in literary production that followed on from the destruction of the Sasanian empire. Its narratives have flourished at the highest political levels of the land, as is attested by the large number of court commissioned manuscripts of the poem, some of which are among the most splendid products of the arts of the book ever produced in Iran; and these same narratives have had an equally rich efflorescence at the folk level, as is evidenced by the volumes of local oral versions of Shahnameh-related stories collected by the great folklorist Seyyed Abolqasem Anjavi-Shirazi, and others. It does not seem too much of an exaggeration to say that Persian culture as it currently exists, and has existed for the past thousand years, is inconceivable without the Shahnameh.

            And yet there seems to be, superficially at least, a curious disconnect between Ferdowsi’s great poem and subsequent Persian poetry. If we asked people interested in the subject to name a handful of the greatest Persian poets, I think it’s safe to say that virtually everyone would include Ferdowsi on even the smallest such list. But who else would they place on the list with him? Hafez, certainly; Mowlavi (Rumi) just as certainly; many people would include Sa’di, many would also include Nezami.  Perhaps we should stop at these five: Ferdowsi, Hafez, Mowlavi, Sa’di, Nezami.  However we group them, I think it’s immediately obvious that in almost every way Ferdowsi stands apart from the other four.

            We can say that most of the reasons for the uniqueness of Ferdowsi within this select group arise from two causes; firstly the time in which he wrote and the prevalent poetic style at that time, and the way this changed after his death; and secondly the genre of his great poem and the way that, in general, this genre faded from the center of poetic concern for subsequent poets. In fact it seems likely that the genre-requirements of Ferdowsi’s poem reinforced the stylistic qualities of the Khorasani poetic style within which the poetry of his time was written, and that it is for this reason that Ferdowsi’s poem embodies a fairly extreme example of the style even when compared with the work of his contemporaries and near contemporaries.

            In keeping with the broad requirements of Khorasani poetic rhetoric, Ferdowsi’s language is notable for its strength, clarity, and vivid candor of intent. If we understand the meanings of all the words, it’s usually very difficult not to know what Ferdowsi is talking about. There is almost never a suggestion of a hidden meaning behind the verses’ obvious import; flamboyant rhetorical devices are sparely used, puns occur in the poem but are rare. Ferdowsi’s metaphors speak to us through their tonal appositeness rather than by their ingenuity; we have the feeling that the poet has his eye firmly on his story, and that’s where he directs our eyes, rather than to self-conscious displays of rhetorical virtuosity. Even if we compare the rhetoric of the Shahnameh to a work that was written only 40 years later, and which also deals with pre-Islamic material, we can see that the Shahnameh’s rhetoric is clearly the more austere of the two. Gorgani’s Vis and Ramin, written around 1050, deploys a far more lush poetic language than Ferdowsi ever allows himself, although it too is written within the broad parameters of the Khorasani style. Well, it’s a love story, you might object, and love stories always attract lush rhetoric. This is true, but what is instructive is to compare the description of the battle that occurs near the opening of Vis and Ramin, before the love story as such has got underway, with the battles in the Shahnameh. Gorgani’s rhetoric looks like a riot of self-indulgence beside the relative sobriety of Ferdowsi’s, although they are here describing the same kind of event. When a hero is spitted on a spear in Ferdowsi you feel the reality of the moment, and you feel the concomitant recognition of the transience of the heroic life, which Ferdowsi frequently invokes when warriors die; when a hero is spitted on a spear in Gorgani’s text you feel, “Wow, what a neat metaphor!”

            The opening of Ferdowsi’s poem takes place in a world of myth, chthonic magic, and demons; nevertheless, even here, the poem’s rhetoric is in general matter of fact and direct, and Ferdowsi concentrates almost solely on what happens, what is visible in the real world, even when what is visible is as spectacularly unlikely as the appearance of a simorgh in the skies over Sistan. Ferdowsi presents the simorgh we can say as a fact, not as a symbol of anything; if it is to be interpreted as a symbol that is the reader’s or listener’s choice and Ferdowsi doesn’t obviously encourage his audience to do this. Even where the material almost forces a symbolic interpretation on us, it is the facts that Ferdowsi sticks to: what more compelling symbol could there be for the intellectual destruction of a culture than Zahhak’s snakes feeding off the brains of Persia’s youth? But in telling even this story Ferdowsi sticks to the facts as it were; he doesn’t present them as allegory (although we are free to interpret them as such if we wish to of course), and at no point in his poem does he enter that hinterland of ambiguity and suggestiveness which allegorical writing encourages and which later Persian poets delighted in and made their own. Very occasionally he will tell a story and give it an explicit symbolic meaning; he does this after the tale of the Akvan Div, when he tells us that we are to understand the Div as a symbol of human evil. But the symbol is given as a one to one equivalence; it doesn’t come with any aura of ambiguous meanings and suggestions, or possible hidden implications. It is, we understand, discrete, itself, and nothing more.


            Things are very different when we consider the poetry of the other four poets on the brief list I made a moment ago. If you remember, the list I suggested consisted of Ferdowsi, Hafez, Mowlavi, Sa’di, and Nezami. There are clear differences between the language of Nezami, Mowlavi, Sa’di and Hafez, but even so their works have far more in common, rhetorically, with one another than any of them have with the rhetoric of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. To begin with, whatever they are writing about, all four of these poets value a certain sweetness and delicacy of rhetoric, and when they momentarily leave such a register they usually quickly return to it.   Sweetness and delicacy are not the most obvious qualities of the Shahnameh’s language; there are marvelously tender moments in the poem, but they are in general interludes, they don’t constitute the poem’s dominant tone.

            I referred to the force and candor of Ferdowsi’s rhetoric. The language of the other four by contrast is notable for its subtlety and ambiguity, and for the ways that it opens constantly into secondary meanings. Even Sa’di, the most direct of the four, is far more conspicuously elegant in his linguistic virtuosity, he’s much more rhetorically self-conscious we can say, than Ferdowsi ever attempts to be. Where Ferdowsi strives for clarity his fellow poets strive for richness; where he strives to say one thing at a time and to say it forcefully, they strive for density and suggestion, for adumbrations of latent, complicating meaning. Their works attract commentary and exegesis; Ferdowsi’s has attracted very little of either until the modern era, because, I would suggest, it was felt that it didn’t need them – what Ferdowsi was saying was, it was felt, plain enough. A concomitant of this relative clarity is the way that Ferdowsi’s verse very often makes a direct appeal to the reader’s visual imagination; who can read the scene of Kaveh’s confrontation with Zahhak, for example, and not see the action clearly playing out in his mind? But for our other poets? Well, it’s certainly not true of Hafez; it’s almost impossible to visualize a Hafez ghazal bayt by bayt, or if the reader does so – say, by conjuring up a picture of lovers in a garden – he is aware that his visualization accounts for only a small fraction of the poem’s potential meaning. We might object that this is hardly a reasonable comparison because Ferdowsi writes narratives, and Hafez is a lyric poet, but the narratives of Mowlavi and Sa’di also rarely have the visual clarity of Ferdowsi’s, or perhaps it is truer to say that we feel that what we can visualize when reading a scene in Mowlavi or Sa’di is only a relatively small part of what is going on; and even Nezami, who is the closest of the four in his scene painting to Ferdowsi, tends to create idealized, languorous dreamscapes rather than scenes that, momentarily as we read or listen, we feel we could witness in the real world.

            Here I think we come to the major difference between Ferdowsi’s poetry and that of his great successors; things are what they are in Ferdowsi’s work, in that of the major poets who came after him things might be what they are but they are often other things as well. These poets’ works are replete with allegory and symbol, and these allegorical and symbolic meanings are often the primary meanings we are to take away from the work. This leads me to the last of the broad distinctions I wish to draw between the rhetoric of Ferdowsi and that of the major poets who followed him, although I am aware that many will disagree with me here. I don’t feel that Ferdowsi is very interested in religion; in fact for a medieval poet he strikes me as quite extraordinarily uninterested in it. He talks about Zoroastrianism from time to time, but he shows very little evidence of actually knowing much about its beliefs, and he gets embarrassed now and again when he has to record events that Islamic custom regards as reprehensible, but by and large he strikes me as, generally, a secular poet, and in this he is of course like epic poets from other cultures. Please note that I didn’t say he wasn’t interested in ethics; he is, we can say, obsessively interested in ethical questions, but ethics and religion are not the same thing, or they are the same thing only to a mind which sees all of life through the lens of religion, and I don’t feel from reading his poem that Ferdowsi was such a person.

            The apparent distance of Ferdowsi’s poetic world from those of his successors would seem to make his verse an unlikely model for their imitation and emulation.  The plainer diction, the preference for public political meaning rather than for private idiosyncratic meaning, the relative lack of ambiguous, complicating allusions, the avoidance of allegory, the virtual absence of mysticism, and certainly of an implied mystical agenda, all these separate him out from the poets who became his most famous successors.


            I have said that, unlike his successors, Ferdowsi eschews allegory; there is however one interesting allegorical incident that occurs in Ferdowsi’s account of the reign of Anushirvan, and as it can be taken as the exception that proves the rule, I’d like to look at it for a moment. A doctor at Anushirvan’s court, named Barzui, reads that there is a plant in India that can revive the dead, and he asks to be allowed to go to India in order to find it. Anushirvan is skeptical, but lets him go. He searches everywhere but with no success. Finally he is told that if anyone can help him a certain sage living in the mountains can do so, and he sets off to find this sage. When he finds him he asks for information about the plant, and this is the answer he receives:

            “When I was young I also read the book

            You mention, and like you began to look

                        For this same plant; my time was vainly spent,

                        Until I saw that something else was meant.

                        Let me explain: the plant that you have tried

                        So hard to find is speech, the mountainside

                        Is knowledge, and the corpse is any man

                        Who’s ignorant, since only knowledge can

                        Give life to us; if there’s no knowledge there

                        You won’t find life within us anywhere.

                        The plant you seek’s a book called Kalileh,

                        Its language is the guide to wisdom’s way     -

                        You’ll find this book, if you search carefully,

                        Locked away in the rajah’s treasury.”                      

Barzui lives in a world where allegory is not understood; he has taken as literal what is meant symbolically. Through the sage, Ferdowsi spells out the whole thing for Barzui and for his audience. The solution to this allegory is itself an allegory, Kalileh and Demneh, a book of stories in which animals and their actions stand in for men and their actions. In order to understand the book, one has to understand what allegory is, and it’s only by achieving such understanding that one can gain access to the book in the first place. In Ferdowsi’s narrative, all this is foreign, Indian, not Persian. Once the allegory has been explained to him, Barzui contrives to copy the book and introduce it to Iran, and incidentally introduces allegory, in a very foursquare spelled out fashion, into Ferdowsi’s poem. In explicating the allegory’s symbols Ferdowsi is doing something that Mowlavi for example would have left unsaid; we would be expected to work out the allegory for ourselves, and we would be expected above all to recognize immediately, unlike Barzui, that the account of the plant is an allegory. In Ferdowsi’s narrative, we have a symbolic moment in a literal landscape, whereas in Mowlavi’s Masnavi the landscapes are almost always symbolic and the reader is expected to recognize this fact. We see Ferdowsi reaching towards allegory, and explicating a process that, later on, was to become second-nature for Persian poetry, the very air it breathed we might say, and so in no need of explication for readers of later verse, who could be assumed to be familiar with the technique.


In talking about Ferdowsi’s rhetoric I compared his work briefly to that of Gorgani. Gorgani’s Vis and Ramin had a clear rhetorical influence on subsequent Persian poetry in a way that Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh did not. Gorgani’s rhetoric was the basis for Nezami’s, and Nezami also took a number of motifs and set scenes from Gorgani’s poem, which he incorporated into his own romances. Since Nezami’s work became the model for subsequent writers of romances in Persian, we can trace a clear rhetorical line from Gorgani to that of virtually all Persian romances. Such a line might also be traced of course to the epics that were written in imitation of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, of which there were a number, mostly dealing with other members of Rostam’s family. But very few of these have had even a modest readership, and this is indicated by the fact that many of them lack even an editio princeps, and still exist only in manuscript form. Persian poetic taste, while revering the Shahnameh itself, turned away from epic as a form and Ferdowsi’s epic successors have lacked a wide audience. Gorgani’s rhetoric became part of the mainstream of Persian poetry; Ferdowsi’s became something of a cul de sac, even if a revered one.


But if Nezami took his rhetoric from Gorgani, he took the subject matter for three of his five narratives from the Shahnameh, and here we begin to see the ways in which Ferdowsi’s poem has exerted a considerable influence on subsequent Persian poetry; not through its language so much, where the influence is indeed we might say fairly slight, as through what it talks about, its subject matter. Nezami finds the stories of Khosrow and Shirin, Bahram Gur and his various amours, and the wanderings of Alexander, in the Shahnameh, and he adapts them for his own purposes in his Khosrow and Shirin, Haft Paykar and Eskandarnameh.

            It’s interesting to look at what Nezami does with the stories he found in the Shahnameh. In each case he does more or less the same things: he elaborates, he elevates, and he simultaneously both complicates and simplifies.  The elaboration is part of the fact that he is devoting a whole poem to something that is only an episode in the Shahnameh. Many new narrative details are introduced, as well as new characters, and the whole tale proceeds in a much more leisurely fashion. Because the story is told at much greater length, interest shifts to some extent from what actually happens to two other areas – what the characters feel (the poems are more inward in their concerns than their models in the Shahnameh), and the way the story is told; scenes are described in greater detail, and the rhetoric is as we have already observed more lush and rich than Ferdowsi allows himself. The poems are self-consciously lovely, endlessly so, and ugliness is expunged. This leisurely beauty, spun out over many pages, has at times put me in mind of a remark attributed to Stravinsky about the music of Boulez: he insisted that he did not mean his characterization as a put-down, and neither do I when using it to refer to Nezami’s romances. Stravinsky said that he found Boulez’s music “Beautifully monotonous, and monotonously beautiful”.

            The elevation we find in Nezami’s treatment of Ferdowsi’s stories is part and parcel of his expunging of whatever is ugly. Ferdowsi’s characters are complicated and often seem self-contradictory; they can be quite nasty at times, like real people. In Nezami’s hands they become seamlessly noble. For example, Khosrow’s marriage to Shirin in the Shahnameh is shadowed by some unspecified moral impurity of which Shirin has been accused. The royal court is given to discontented grumbling and mumbling about this, and Khosrow has to resort to some strong-arm tactics to shut them up. But Shirin is never actually cleared of the charge; Khosrow simply says We won’t talk about that any more. And then Ferdowsi tells us that when she does become Khosrow’s wife, Shirin is intensely jealous of Khosrow’s first wife, Maryam, so she promptly poisons her. Khosrow himself in Ferdowsi’s account is a rather desperate character who is thrown from crisis to crisis– put on the throne by his uncles who murder his father, unable to defeat the rebel Bahram Chubineh except with the help of both Byzantium and heaven, manipulated by an evil vizier, suspicious of his son whom he imprisons, and finally murdered at the instigation of this same son. It’s all pretty sordid in fact. Nezami’s version by contrast is virtually all sweetness and light; no mention of moral impurities in Shirin’s past, the accusation that she poisoned Maryam is explicitly denied; Khosrow becomes a gallant protagonist ennobled by the love of a pure woman, and his spiritual progress in proving himself worthy of her is presented as a kind of éducation sentimentale. It’s in his treatment of the characters at the center of the tales that we see how Nezami both simplifies and complicates Ferdowsi’s versions. He simplifies them by omitting the negative qualities the characters possessed in the Shahnameh; he complicates them by implying a spiritual and symbolic dimension to their tale, so that the story has an aura of spiritual allegory to it; it is as much about the moral purification of an aspiring soul as it is a carnal love story. The implication of Sufism is never far away. Nezami’s treatments of Bahram Gur in the Haft Paykar and of Alexander in the Eskandarnameh are very similar to the ways he deals with Khosrow and Shirin; the complicating negative characteristics of both, as they appear in the Shahnameh, are smoothed away, and the tales take on an explicitly spiritual and allegorical subtext.


            Characters from the Shahnameh often make brief appearances in the work of other poets as a kind of shorthand to convey a particular idea, and this indicates that they, and presumably at least parts of the Shahnameh itself, had acquired a talismanic status within the literary culture. When Hafez says

            Shah-e torkan sokhan-e moda’iyan mishenavad

                        Sharmi az mazlameh-ye khun-e siyavoshesh bad

(The king of the Turks listened to the liars’ claims; shame on the one who spilled the blood of Seyavash)

it’s clear that in order to understand the reference his audience had to know the story of Afrasyab’s murder of Seyavash, and that Seyavash was being used as an archetypal example of an innocent unjustly killed. In the same way, when Hafez evokes in two bayts of a ghazal the kings Jamshid, Bahman, Qobad and Kay Kavus he is relying on his audience associating these kings with a distant pre-Islamic past of vanished and unimaginable splendor. Such references indicate that stories from the Shahnameh had clearly become familiar components of Persian culture.

            But I think the most interesting ways that Ferdowsi’s poetry lives on in that of his successors is not so much in such specific references, but rather in the ways that his concerns, as evidenced by the Shahnameh, became part of the general discourse of Persian poetry. For example, Persian poetry is often intensely ethical in its concerns (this is true in their different ways of Mowlavi, Nezami and Sa’di, to mention only those poets to whom I’ve already referred). This ethical focus is at least in part an heritance of the ancient wisdom literature of the middle east, “how to live, what to do” literature, to adapt a phrase from Wordsworth, as we find it in the Hebrew Bible, and in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian writings; the existence of extensive examples of this genre embedded within the Shahnameh’s narratives has ensured its continued vitality in Persian culture.  Although such ethical preoccupations may well have had other sources than the Shahnameh, certainly the example of the Shahnameh validated such concerns as a legitimate subject for verse. The cry for justice is one that constantly reechoes throughout Ferdowsi’s poem; advice on how one should act is repeatedly given by kings on their death beds to their sons, and many reigns begin with ethical homilies and promises of just government.  As has been well said, the Shahnameh is among other things a mirror for princes, and the notion of poetry as a vehicle for instruction and advice is one that became a commonplace of Persian culture (and is incidentally one of the major differences that marks it off from, for example, English poetry, which is very sparing with advice of any kind; ethical homily is not at the center of English verse in the way that it is at the center of a great deal of Persian verse, and the first great examples in Persian culture of versified ethical homilies are to be found in the Shahnameh).

            But advice in the Shahnameh can be of two kinds, and although in an ideal world the two would coincide, in the real world, as Ferdowsi often graphically shows us, the two are frequently at odds with one another.  The advice can be practical, how one survives, defeats one’s enemies, and emerges triumphant from life’s vicissitudes; or the advice can be ethical, how one acts justly, how one makes peace with one’s conscience and with God. I said just now that Ferdowsi rarely indulges in ambiguity, but he does sometimes and there is a wonderfully ambiguous moment at the end of the story of Mazdak (though I must admit I’m unsure whether it’s deliberate or not).

            At the opening of this story a famine has struck the country, and Mazdak, who is described as knowledgeable and wise, comes to the king with a question. If a man has been bitten by a snake, says Mazdak, and someone has the antidote but refuses to give the victim any of it, what do we think of that man? The king says such a man is a murderer. Mazdak then asks a similar question about someone refusing bread to a chained-up prisoner, and the king has a similar answer. Mazdak then tells the starving citizenry to loot the royal granaries, and justifies his action by the king’s answers. The king is convinced, and with his support Mazdak becomes a political and religious leader who advocates a kind of proto-communism in which property is to be held in common. At this point the king’s son, who is the future Anushirvan the Just, gets fed up with all this subversive egalitarianism and arranges a religious debate in which Mazdak is soundly defeated by the religious powers that be, and he and his followers are rather gruesomely killed. End of story. Ferdowsi began the tale by saying that Mazdak was knowledgeable and that his words were wise; he ends it by saying directly to his audience, i.e., us, “If you have any sense, you will not follow Mazdak’s way”.  Now this can mean two things; it can mean that Mazdak’s way was wrong, ethically and religiously wrong, and that the Zoroastrian priests were right when they showed up his arguments as spurious; or it can mean that, whether Mazdak’s way was ethically right or not, to do what he did wasn’t sensible because he was pitting himself against powerful vested interests who had him killed, and a sensible man would have seen that coming and not acted as he did.  Ferdowsi’s remark can be taken either ethically, or practically, and it means different things according to which way we take it. Subsequent Persian poetry delights in both kinds of advice, the practical and the ethical, and in a work like Sa’di’s Bustan for example we can see the two merging and separating and coming together again, often with a similar kind of ambiguous resonance – should I do this to save my skin, or because it’s the right thing to do?

            The wish to do what is right, which is certainly present at the beginning of Mazdak’s career, even if later on he seems to get taken over by a kind of megalomania, lies at the heart of Ferdowsi’s story of Seyavash, and also that of Seyavash’s son, Kay Khosrow. Seyavash is killed because he chooses to do what his conscience tells him is right rather than to obey his king and father and commit what he sees as a crime. He leaves Iran in order to act, as he sees it, ethically, and in so doing he loses his life. In the same way his son, Kay Khosrow, who is presented as the paradigmatically just king of the legendary portion of the poem, also abandons Iran in order to follow what his conscience tells him is ethically right. Part of the greatness of Ferdowsi lies in the way that he shows that all choices cost something; there is no single right way in which everything turns out for the best. Seyavash dies as a result of his decision, and Iran descends into chaos as a result of Kay Khosrow’s decision. A sense of the arduousness and difficulty of choosing righteousness over expedience and expedience informs a great deal of Sufi poetry, and again although we may be sure that the stories of the Shahnameh are not the chief or only models for such verse, the grandeur of the moral struggles depicted at various points in the poem, and certainly the figures of Seyavash and Kay Khosrow, can only have served as a further validation of the otherworldly emphases of Sufi verse.

            I’d like to end by looking briefly at another hero of the Shahnameh, indeed it’s greatest hero, Rostam, whose example I believe also resonates in later verse, though not perhaps in an immediately obvious way.

            Rostam is someone who has to do things on his own terms, and his terms are often transgressive. He crosses boundaries at will, both literal ones and moral ones; he’s a great drinker and trencherman, and his seemingly coarse manners annoy some of the more fastidious princes he encounters, particularly Esfandyar and his pernickety son Bahman. He does a number of things which seem ethically dubious for a great hero, such as sleeping with his host’s daughter, and, most spectacularly, quarreling with two of his kings, for whom he has deep contempt. He is often unwilling to come to his kings’ aid, he becomes exasperated with the imperial court, he storms from Kavus’s presence in fury, and when Lohrasp becomes king he refuses to travel to his court to pay homage to him, as he also does when Lohrasp’s son, Goshtasp, becomes king. A little probing reveals this uneasy relationship between Rostam and the Iranian kings throughout virtually every story in which he is involved, but it becomes irrefutably obvious during his confrontation with Esfandyar. He’s someone who, in the contemporary phrase, speaks truth to power, and he has no fear of authority; there is an anarchic, unpredictable quality about him, and when he has had enough of court life he withdraws to his appanage, Sistan, where he lives outside of anyone else’s control. When he is summoned to appear at court by King Kavus and he doesn’t want to go, this precipitates a quarrel in which he refers to Kavus as “a fistful of dirt” (“yek mosht-e khak”).

            Now where can we find such another anarchic, hard-drinking, transgressive figure, who thumbs his nose at authority, whose morality is seen as questionable by the powerful and fastidious, who retires into his own privacy when he has had enough of the rest of the world, and tells it to leave him alone? Well, we can find him in Hafez’s poetry, and in the less accomplished poetry of many who wrote in his vein; the figure of the rend, the anarchic libertine, the breaker of rules who mocks the morality police and accuses them of hypocrisy, owes, I believe, a great deal to the figure of Rostam, though I admit it takes a moment to get one’s head around the idea because these two – Rostam and the libertine of later Persian lyric poetry-  seem, superficially, to inhabit such different worlds. Certainly the rend has other more obvious sources too, in Arabic anacreontic poetry like the poems of Abu Nawas for example, and he possesses many features, such as his passionate inwardness and restlessness, that are quite alien to Rostam and the world of the Shahnameh. Nevertheless, I think that the rend and Rostam are to some degree brothers under the skin, and that without the validating figure of Rostam Persian lyric poetry’s anarchic libertine would be a lesser, tamer figure, and in particular he would not have that propensity to speak truth to power which is one of Rostam’s most compelling characteristics, and also one of Hafez’s.

            The Shahnameh takes on huge themes; the nature of justice and government, the burdens of power and the sufferings of the powerless, the longing for glory and the bitterness of defeat, and it’s undeniable that much of the greatness of the poem lies in its treatment of these themes. But one of the most noticeable features of the Shahnameh, for whatever reason - its length, the apparent variety of its sources, the different genres that are included within its limits, or because of Ferdowsi’s deliberate choices, who knows?  – one of its most noticeable features is the way that it can keep quite different world-views in play at once. And over against the high moral seriousness of a great deal of the poem there is also the trickster Rostam, who, when it suits him, mocks the arrogant self-importance of power, whose real nobility and integrity are bound up with an equally real contempt for hypocrisy and vapid posturing, who is in a sense the conscience of his nation when its masters forget themselves, but who is very largely, also, a law unto himself. Hafez’s libertine is his worthy successor, and a necessary alternative to the ponderous seriousness of self-important officialdom, whoever may be sitting on the throne of Kay Kavus and Kay Qobad.  Ferdowsi’s celebration of his boundary-transgressing outsider-hero was, I believe, not the least of his legacies to the future of Persian poetry.


* A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London, Dick Davis is currently Professor of Persian and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University. The lecture was presented on Dec 9, 2010 in Victoria Albert Museum of London.

The text of this lecture is published here by the special permission granted by Professor Davis.

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