1151 GMT December 09, 2022
The artistic merit of a language depends on its achievement in this respect. A language is considered great or brilliant primarily by the extent of its literary accomplishments. So we may ask what have Persians done with their language, apart from using it for communication. They used it for writing history, for writing on science, philosophy, and their spiritual experiences, but above all to create a literature, rich in poetry, a poetry that is counted among the outstanding examples of its kind. Had the Persians not been able to use the language for the creation of a splendid literature, they would have had no claim to much of our attention.
Scholars like William Jones, E. G. Browne, Reynold Nicholson, and Arthur J. Arberry in England, Hotum Schindler in Austria, Wolfgang Goethe in Germany, Ralph Waldo Emerson in the US, and Tagore in India, and many more like them, were all attracted to this poetry and praised it as great. E. M. Forster, an outstanding critic of English literature and a prominent novelist who had lived in India and was familiar with Persian literature, has this to say, when discussing the merits of English literature: “If the English nature is cold, how is it that it has produced a great literature and a literature that is particularly great in poetry? Judged by its prose, English literature would not stand in the first rank. It is its poetry that raises it to the level of Greek, Persian, or French.”
It is significant that the four great scholars who held the Sir Thomas Adams chair of Arabic literature during the most brilliant period of British Orientalism, from 1902 to 1969, namely, Browne, Nicholson, C. A. Storey, and Arberry, were all without exception drawn to Persian literature and produced their major works in this field.
Persian poetry began in earnest in the ninth and 10th centuries at the Samanid court. What is striking about the poems written during these early centuries, notably those of Rudaki (880-940 CE), rightly called the father of Persian poetry, is that although they look today a little archaic in language, there is nothing archaic about their poetic thoughts, their imageries, and their sentiments. They are remarkably mature poems. Obviously, they had models of Abbasid poetry, to the growth of which the Persians had contributed themselves, but also the reminiscences and the tradition of the Sassanid era. It is a mistake to think that the Persians had forgotten their past on account of conversion to Islam and of their being steeped in Arabic culture. The proof of this is the work of a Samanid poet, Ferdowsi (940-1025 CE), who created not only the greatest epic poem in Persian, but also the greatest monument of the Persian language, the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings, in some fifty thousand couplets. It ranks with the Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, and the Nibelungen Saga as one of the great epics of the world. It relates the traditional history of Persia from creation to the fall of the Sassanids. It contains the Iranian myths and legends, as well as, in its later parts, a romanticized account of the history of the Sassanids.
It is arranged under the reign of some fifty kings and queens, from early mythical, civilizing kings who ruled the world and reigned over man and beast, to the last of the Sassanid kings. The Shahnameh, however, is far from being a dry or tedious history. It is replete with dramatic events, exciting descriptions, and masterful characterizations. The interminable bloody feud between Iranians and their consanguine chief neighbor and antagonist, the Turanians, and the feats and exploits of Iranian paladins and noble warriors, more particularly those of mighty Rostam, the Persian Hercules, enliven the poem to extraordinary pitches. It also contains a number of highly dramatic tragedies.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled ‘Ventures and adventures of the Persian language’, from a book entitled, ‘Persian Language, Literature and Culture’, Edited by Kamran Talattof, published by Routledge.