The Literature of Persia:
A Lecture delivered to the Persia Society
pages 9-12, 33-34
London: Persia Society, 1912-04-26
The CHAIRMAN said: Ladies and Gentlemen, in opening these proceedings
my task is as pleasant as it is simple, for on such occasions the duty of the
one who has the pleasure and the honour as I have on this occasion — of taking
the Chair, is to introduce the Lecturer. But does Professor Browne need
introduction? Those who are in any way connected with Persia, and who know
Persia, know Professor Browne well, and know his works (hear, hear, and
) but even those who know Persia only from books of geography and
from newspapers, to them even the name of Professor Browne is most familiar. If
you talk of Persia, you think of professor Browne (hear, hear
); if you
hear the name of Persia, you think again of Professor Browne. He has spent
almost all his life in the study and in the work relating to Persia. When he
was a student, when he was studying medicine, he devoted most of his leisure
time to the study of our language and of our country, and spent most of his
time among Persians. Then he travelled in Persia, where he spent his time in
literatures of Persia. I must now pass to that comparatively modern post-Muhammadan
literature which is generally referred to when we speak of Persian literature,
and which to-day forms the main topic of my discourse. This literature and the
language in which it is written arose gradually after the Arab conquest, but was
in full being, at any rate, by the middle or end of the ninth century of our era,
so that it covers a period of a thousand years down to the present day. During
this long period the language has hardly changed at all, and the verses of poets
who lived nine hundred or a thousand years ago, though they present some archaic
words, forms and constructions, are generally more easily intelligible to the
Persian of today than are the writings of Shakespeare to the modern Englishman.
The Persian language, in short, presents that same quality or stability which
has been already noticed as one of the most remarkable attributes of the Persian
One of the oldest verses of this later Persian literature which can be
certainly dated as anterior to the year A.D. 875 is cited in a very interesting
work, entitled the Chahar Maqala
or Four Discourses,"
about the middle of the twelfth century by Nizami al-Aruzi of Samarqand, a
Court-poet of the Kings of Ghur.* These "Four Discourses" treat of our classes
of men deemed by the writer indispensable to kings, viz., secretaries, poets,
astrologers, and physicians, and each discourse, after describing the
qualifications necessary to the class of which it treats, is illustrated by a
number of anecdotes drawn for the most part from the author's recollections. It
is a very valuable book, since amongst much interesting matter it contains the
oldest accounts which we possess of Firdawsi, the great epic poet, and `Umar
Note: I published a translation of this book in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic
Society for 1899, and the reprint is still obtainable from that Society and
Messrs. Luzac, 46, Great Russel Street, W.C. The text was published with
critical notes in Persian, by my learned friend Mirza Muhammad in the Gibb
Memorial Series (vol. xi), 1910.
author of the celebrated Quatrains; and it is written in a charming and
simple style which might well serve as a model of Persian prose. Now I would
like to quote this author's definition of poetry, because it is very
characteristic and very interesting psychologically. He says (p. 42 of the
"Poetry is that art whereby the poet arranges imaginary propositions and adapts
the deductions, with the result that he can make a little thing appear great
and a great thing small, or cause good to appear in the garb of evil and evil
in the garb of good. By acting on the imagination he excites the faculties of
anger and concupiscence in such a way that by his suggestion men's temperaments
become affected with exultation or depression; whereby he conduces to the
accomplishment of great things in the order of the world."
This definition, which could only have been framed for a people unusually
susceptible to eloquence and the power of rhetoric, is illustrated by the verse
in question; which is by an old poet named Hanzala of Badghis, and of which the
text and translation are as follows:
Mihtari gar bi-kam-i-shir-dar-ast,
Sham, khatar kun. zi kam-i-shir bi juy
Ya buzurgi u naz u ni mai u jah.
Ya, vhu mardan'i, marg-i-vu ya ruy.
If lordship lies within the lion's jaws,
Go, risk it, and from those dread portals seize
Such straight confronting death as men desire,
Or riches, greatness, rank and lasting ease."
This verse was read by a certain Ahmad al-Khujistani, who, being at the time
only an ass-herd, was, as he himself related, so affected by it that he sold
his asses, bought a horse, became a soldier, and finally succeded in making
himself the ruler of Nishapur and the neighbouring parts of Khurasan. He died
in or before A.D. 881, after a reign of six years, so that the verse which
first prompted his ambition was certainly current as literature in A.D. 875 or
To the Persian, poetry is a real incentive to action (p. 12) or endurance and
innumerable instances of this might be given. Many are to be found in the well
known manuals of Persian literature, and I have only time to mention a few
instances from modern times where Persians have confronted death with verses on
their tongues. Two well-known instances are afforded by the Babis, that
remarkable sect which, arising in A.D. 1844, caused so great a turmoil in
Persia during the later days of Muhammad Shah, and the earlier days of
Nasiru'd-Din Shah, especially in the years 1849-1852, when many of them endured
the most cruel martyrdoms. Mirza Qurban-'Ali, one of those known as "the Seven
Martyrs" recited the following verse when the executioner, missing his neck,
hurled his turban on the ground:
"Khusha an `ashiq i sar mazt ki dar pa-yi-Habib
Sar u dastar na danad ki kudam andazad."
"Happy is he whom love's intoxication
So hath overcome that scarce he knows
Whether at the feet of the Beloved
It be head or turban that he throws."*
Another Babi martyr, Sulayman Khan, one of those who suffered an agonising
death in the great martyrdom of 1852, was lead to the scaffold with burning
wicks inserted into his body. "Why do you not dance?" cried his tormentors,
mocking his agonies. "Not for fear of death and not for lack of joy," he
replied, and began to recite a well-known ode by the great mystic Shams-i
Tabriz, in which occurs the verse:
"Yak dast jam-i-bada, wa vah dast zuft-i-yar
Raqzi chunin mayana-i-maydan am arzust."
"Clasping in one hand the wine cup, in one hand the Loved One's hair,
Thus my doom would I envisage, dancing through the market-square."
The two other instances which occurred me belong to the history of the recent
revolution, and were communicated to me by Persian friends. The great ...
Note: See my translation of the New History of the Bab (Cambridge, 1893), p.
Some very fine modern poetry of a much more lofty order has been produced by
the Babis and Bahá'ís, of whom so much has lately been heard in circles
interested in religious innovations. Of the early Babis few were more
remarkable than the beautiful and talented Qurratu'l-`Ayn ("Coolness of the
Eyes"), the heroine and poetess who was put to death at Tihran with so many of
her fellow-believers in the summer of 1852. Amongst the few poems generally
ascribed to her is one beginning with the following verse, of which the first
half is Arabic, the second Persian:
Jazaba shazqika azjamat bi salasili' i-gham wa'l-bata
Hama `askigan-i shik-a-ta-dil, ki dikund jan bi-zah-i-wila
Of this I published, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
1889, the following verse-translation which I think, fairly reproduces not only
the sense but also the rhythm and form of the original:
"the thralls of yearning love constrains in the bonds of pain and calamity
Those broken-hearted lovers of thine to yield their lives in their love for thee.
Though with sword in hand my Darling stand with intent to slay, though I sinless be,
If it pleases Him, this tyrant's whim, I am well content with his tyranny.
As in sleep I lay at the dawn of day that cruel charmer came to me
And in the grace of His form and face the dawn of the morn seemed to see.
The musk of Cathay might perfume gain from the scent those fragrant tresses rain,
While His eyes demolish a faith in vain attacked by the pagans of Tartary.
With you, who contemn both love and wine for the hermit's call and the zealot's shrine
What can I do? For our Faith Divine you hold as a thing of infamy.
The tangled curls of thy darling's hair, and the saddle and steed are thy only care,
In thy heart the Absolute hath no share, nor the thought of the poor man's poverty.
Sikandar's pomp and display be thine, the Qalandar's habit and way be mine;
That, if it please thee, I resign, while this, though bad, is enough for me.
The country of `I' and `We' forsake; thy home in Annihilation make,
Since fearing not this step to take thou shalt gain the highest Felicity."
There is another fine poem by Nabil in praise of Bahá'u'lláh, to whom,
some time subsequently to the Bab's death, most of his followers transferred
their allegiance. The first five verses of this poem (which is still
unpublished) are as follows, and in my translation of them I have again
endeavoured to preserve the metre, rhyme, and rhythm as far as possible.
Shab-i-hijr archi tazril shud chu siyah mu-l, Baha, Baha,
Fa-laka'l-aqa, ki taman shud bi buruq i rul, Baha, Baha!
Bi-dilam shud az ta isharati ki dikam bi-khalq bashdrati
Ki bi-sar rawand, chu guy-ha, kamagi bi-ku-i, Baha, Baha!
Zi basharat-am zi chahar sa dil u jan bi-sil-yi tu kard ru;
Bi-kujd rawad da u jan agar na dawad bi-su-i, Baha, Baha!
Hama ari Khuld-i-varin skuda, chu bihizht-i-ru yi Zamin shuda,
Chu ti-nay wazida nasimi az nasimat i-khu-i, Baha, Baha!
Tu'l an Karim ki iz-hazar du jakan diht-sh bi-yah nazar
Shawad ar bi-shutr-i-tu murtafi an haf-i=adut, Baha, Baha"
"Though the Night of Parting endless seem as Thy night-black hair, Baha, Baha,
Yet we meet at last, and the gloom is past in thy lightning's glare, Baha, Baha!
To my heart from Thee was a signal shown that I to all men should make known
That they, as the ball to the goal doth fly, should to Thee repair, Baha, Baha!
At this my call from the quarters four men's hearts and souls to Thy quarters
What, forsooth, could attract them more than that region fair, Baha, Baha?
The world hath attained the Heaven's worth, and a Paradise is the face of earth
Since at length thereon a breeze hath blown from Thy Nature rare, Baha, Baha!
Bountiful are Thou, as all men know: at a glance two worlds Thou would'st e'en bestow
On the suppliant hands of Thy direst foe, if he makes his prayer, Baha, Baha!
2. Image scans (apologies for the poor-quality of the scans; click image for larger version)