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The Rise and Development
of Persian Literature

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General Features
of Persian Literature

The Development
of Iranian Literatures

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At this point we may consider some of the general characteristics of this literature.

i. Preponderance of Poetry:

A fairly extensive prose literature, mainly of a narrative, anecdotal, and moralizing kind also flourished, but it is overshadowed by poetry in terms of quality and quantity alike. In fact, poetry is the art par excellence of Persia, and her salient cultural achievement. Despite their considerable accomplishments in painting, pottery, textiles, and architecture, in no other field have the Persians succeeded in achieving the same degree of eminence. Whereas the scope of the other arts remained limited, poetry developed into a vehicle for the most refined thoughts and the deepest sentiments. Contemplative and passionate at the same time, poetry speaks the language of the Persian heart, mind, and soul, fully reflecting the Persian world view and life experience.

ii. "Tangential" Structure and Organization:

The literatures of Persia generally tend to be descriptive rather than dramatic, expressionistic rather than naturalistic, organic rather than architectural. This does not mean that Iranian literatures lack dramatic or well-constructed stories. The Shah-nama contains some powerful stories with considerable dramatic effect. The episodes of Rostam and Sohrab, Siyavosh and Sudaba, and Rostam and Esfandiyar, are not only effective in themselves, but are also told with commendable structural cohesion - as are a number of events reported by the eleventh-century historian Bayhaqi. From their Persian renditions, it is clear that the Middle Persian historical novels based on the lives of Mazdak and Bahram Chobin were dramatic and well-constructed. One need only refer to the epigrammatic quatrains of Omar Khayyam and his imitators to show that dramatic technique was not alien to Persian literary taste. Many writers and poets excelled in driving a point home effectively by the judicious use of contrast, emphasis, paradox, and irony, but most of all by a fitting illustration (which is frequently used in Persian didactic literature to dramatize an abstract point or dictum).

And yet it is the creation of moods and effects and the description of scenes and sentiments that have remained the chief concerns of the writers and poets of Persia. Literary constructions of an architectural nature, where all details are subordinated to the requirements of an overriding theme or idea, have seldom been the compelling aim of Iranian literary works. Structural frames as, they are understood in the West, with dramatic tension resulting from their development of characters and their contrived interaction do not preoccupy the Persian literary mind. Rather than following a planned development from initial premises to climax and resolution, the Persian writers allow themselves to explore, often at a leisurely pace, the scenes and details that excite their own imagination, and to share these with the reader. This, unfocused, meandering type of literary construction finds its supreme example in Rumi's Mathnavi, where mystical ideas and preachings are illustrated by stories within stories, with no clear structure between rambling sermons and philosophical comments....

....It is also revealing that in the present century, when fiction writing has become popular, it is the short story (mostly descriptive) and not the novel that has attracted the best talents. And in Afghani's Showhar-e Ahu Khanom and Dowlatabadi's Kelidar, two significant post-World War II novels, frequent peregrinations, delight in exploiting the ramifications of their subjects, and branching off into side alleys are typical of the same centrifugal tendency that we notice in the works of Nezami or Attar.

On the other hand, Persian poets and writers are proven masters of vignettes, aphorisms, pithy remarks, proverbial sayings, felicitous formulations, pregnant allusions, illustrative anecdotes, and imaginative short descriptions; almost all of these techniques are exemplified in the pages of the most celebrated Persian prose work, Sadi's Golestan (The rose garden), composed in the thirteenth century. Persian and Middle Persian possess a rich store of wisdom literature, consisting mainly of detached or loosely connected moral maxims and ethical observations from which one can hardly deduce a coherent system of ethical philosophy. It is symptomatic of the Persian mode of thinking and literary predilection that the true unit of Persian poetry is the line (distich or bayt). The best Persian poets often succeed in expressing profound thoughts or impassioned sentiments within the confines of a single couplet.

iii. Decorative Tendency:

A third feature of Persian literature is its taste for the use of rhetorical devices and ornament. It has often been observed that Persian art has a marked decorative tendency. This is clearly seen in the visual arts: architecture, book illustration, wall painting, bookbinding, calligraphy, and textiles, as well as in music. In modern Persian criticism this tendency, an integral part of artistic expression in Persian letters, has been somewhat deprecated, partly as a result of changes in literary values and partly because the critics have usually focused on excessive examples. Such a view, however, ignores the standards of taste prevailing in medieval Persia and its spheres of cultural influence, and it misses, as well, the true nature and function of ornament in Persian literature. Far from being a mere addition or embellishment, ornament is a vital element of literary expression. It is one of the major devices writers or poets use to display their ingenuity, imparting elegance and sophistication to their products, and rousing the reader's admiration. If in treatises on rhetoric the embellishing devices occupy such a conspicuous place, it is because they were seen not as marginal but rather as essential parts of the craft.

In early Persian poetry, ornament is minimal, partly as a result of the poetry's youth and partly because it was modeled on Sassanian poetry. In pre-Islamic Persia, as we have seen, poetry and music went hand in hand, and the minstrels usually sang their poems to the accompaniment of instruments. Poetry, to judge by our few remaining examples, was fairly simple in composition since the music was there to help deliver its emotional impact. Many early Persian poems were, in fact, conceived as songs and were sung by the poet or a ravi (Arabic rawi, reciter) as instanced by Rudaki's famous poem on Bukhara, which reportedly made his patron king abandon Herat and rush to his capital without even taking time to put on his riding boots.

It was not long, however, before poetry achieved a totally separate existence from music and its own tradition was established with a repertory of conventional themes, motifs, and imagery. Since the free play of imagination was somewhat limited by the restraints of this tradition, embellishment and decoration became a primary means of exhibiting literary dexterity and of impressing one's audience. Stylistic mastery and rhetorical craftsmanship gradually became a hallmark of good writing. Even the writers of informative prose who mastered the craft were considered practitioners of literary art.

Embellishments enjoy a wide scope and variety in Persian letters. Sometimes they have to do with the sound and the music of the word and include such devices as alliteration, homophony (jenas), internal rhyming, double rhyming, and the addition of a radif (refrain) to the rhyme. At other times the embellishment takes place at the semantic level and plays on the associative meanings of words or metaphors and their connotations; these devices include amphibology (iham), antithesis (tazadd), congruence (mora'at-e nazir), and various types of allusion. Again, it may concern the arrangement of words and their messages in some pleasing or impressive pattern such as laff o nashr (involution and revolution), in which a number of words in a hemistich or line find correspondences normally in the next hemistich or line. Embellishment also results, though less frequently, from playing on the shape of the letters or the presence or absence of dots. And finally, ornament may be brought to bear on the metaphorical plane by means of statements, similes, and tropes that enhance and elaborate the effect of the basic metaphor or expression.

In the hands of masters like Hafez, who use ornament aptly and with discretion, poems become contrapunctal designs in which the substance and ornament interact with considerable aesthetic effect. In the hands of less-endowed writers, however, meaning often becomes overshadowed or obscured by excessive ornamentation....

iv. Conventionality:

A fourth feature of Persian literary tradition is the conventionality of its themes and imagery. The major themes and forms of Persian poetry were set in the first century of its appearance; they are seen as early as the works of Rudaki (d. 940-41). Furthermore, the different genres of Persian poetry generally correspond to specific forms: the qasida (ode), a long mono-rhyme, for panegyrics; the ghazal, a shorter mono-rhyme of about seven to fourteen lines, for lyrics; the mathnavi or couplet, for narrative themes; the roba'i or quatrain for epigrammatic poems; and the qet'a (piece or fragment) for casual themes. These forms and their corresponding genres have remained fairly constant for nearly a thousand years.

Traditional poets have always composed their works within the requirements of formal canons and thematic and imagistic conventions. If this framework has made the poet's task of achieving originality more difficult, it has also made it more impressive once accomplished. Such originality is often achieved not by deviating from the norm but by improving upon it: development in Persian literature consists mostly of the refinement of existing techniques, not bold or unsettling innovation.

Since the merit of Persian literature rests largely on its poetry, we shall address ourselves to it in more detail. We may begin with a brief sketch of the periods and styles of Persian poetry and then consider its development....


The Development
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Copyright© 1999 K. Kianush, Art Arena