News ID: 322492
Published: 1050 GMT June 24, 2022

Classical Persian literature

Classical Persian literature

A vast amount of Persian prose literature, in fields ranging from history to philosophy, was produced during the pre-modern period. This prose literature certainly has its value, and much of it is in print and read by Iranians today.

However, it is fair to say that it is mostly of interest to specialists and academics of one sort or another rather than to any general audience. The greatest achievement by far of classical Persian literature was rather in the field of poetry, and it is this poetry which still resonates most vibrantly and extensively with contemporary Iranian audiences. No survey of Persian culture and customs which ignored the role of poetry would be adequate.

An appreciation of classical Persian poetry requires taking into account three major factors that have influenced it. First, this poetry developed against the background of the Arabic poetic tradition, which was based on a very complex and rather rigid theory of prosody and on very specific genres, the qasideh or panegyric ode being the most important. So far as can be determined, pre-Islamic Persian poetry was a popular, oral art which had neither a formal system of prosody nor sharply defined genres. The Persian poetry of the Islamic Period, however, tried as far as possible to adapt the theory, technical vocabulary, and practice of the Arabic model to its own needs. This applied in the first instance to the rhythm of the poem: The metrical units were not based on stress, as in English poetry, but on the alternation of long and short vowels, as in Arabic. These were assembled into the key building block of the poem, the bayt or verse, itself composed of two units of equal length (the mesra‘ or hemistich). Each bayt needed to express a complete thought and could stand independent of the bayts which preceded and followed it. The convention in Arabic was for the final words of each hemistich of the first verse to rhyme with each other, and the last word of each subsequent verse to match that rhyme throughout the entire poem, which could be quite long. Monorhyme was also the case for certain genres in Persian, especially the qasideh and the shorter ghazal, or lyrical ode. However, Persian poetry also readily accepted poems with multiple rhyme schemes, most famously the masnavi or “couplet,” where the rhyme only had to be kept between the hemistichs of each verse, as well as genres such as the robai or “quatrain” (actually two verses where three or all four hemistichs rhyme).

 

The above is a lightly edited version of a part of a chapter entitled, ‘Literature’, from a book entitled, ‘Culture and Customs of Iran’, written by Elton L. Daniel and Ali Akbar Mahdi, published by Greenwood Press.

 

   
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