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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Firdawsī (c. 940–1020)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by A. V. Williams Jackson (1862–1937)
 
FIRDAWSĪ, author of the ‘Shāh Nāmah,’ or Book of Kings, is the national poet of Persia. With the name of Firdawsī in the tenth century of our era, modern Persian poetry may be said to begin. Firdawsī, however, really forms only one link in the long chain of Iranian literature which extends over more than twenty-five centuries, and whose beginnings are to be sought in the Avesta, five hundred years before the birth of Christ.  1
  A brief glance may first be taken at the history of the literary development of Persia. The sacred Zoroastrian scriptures of the Avesta, together with the Old Persian rock inscriptions of the Achæmenian kings, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, form the ancient epoch known as Old Iranian Literature, beginning at least in the fifth century before the Christian era. A second great division in the literary history of Iran is constituted by the Middle Persian. This is the period inaugurated by the Sassanian dynasty in the third century A.D., and it extends beyond the Mohammedan conquest of Persia (651) to about the ninth century. The language and literature of this Middle Persian period is called Pahlavī. The Pahlavī records are chiefly writings relating to the Zoroastrian religion. The Mohammedan conquest of Iran by the Arabs somewhat resembles, in its effect upon Persian literature, the Norman conquest of England. Hardly two centuries had elapsed before an Iranian renaissance is begun to be felt in Persia. Firdawsī comes three hundred years after the battle of Nihāvand, in which the eagle of the Persian military standard sank before the crescent of Allah’s prophet and the Mohammedan sword; just as Chaucer followed the battle of Hastings by three hundred years.  2
  Such was the literary situation at the end of the ninth century. Firdawsī was the poet in whom the wave of the national epos culminated in the tenth century. But as there were English poets who struck the note before Chaucer, so in Persia, Firdawsī had his literary predecessors. A mere mention of the more important of these must suffice. Abbas of Merv (809) was one of these earlier bards. Of greater repute was Rūdagī (died 954), who is said to have composed no less than a million verses. But Firdawsī’s direct predecessor and inspirer in the epic strain was Daqīqī. This young poet, like Marlowe, the herald of Shakespeare, was cruelly murdered when he had sung but a thousand lines. Yet these thousand verses are immortal, as Firdawsī has incorporated them into his poem and has thus happily preserved them. They are the lines that describe the founding of the religion of Zoroaster, priest of fire. There was possibly a certain amount of tact on Firdawsī’s part in using these, or in claiming to employ Daqīqī’s rhymes: he thus escaped having personally to deal with the delicate religious question of the Persian faith in the midst of the fanatical Mohammedans, who are said to have assassinated Daqīqī on account of his too zealous devotion to the old-time creed. With Firdawsī, then, the New Persian era is auspiciously inaugurated in the tenth century; its further development through the romantic, philosophic, mystic, didactic, and lyric movements must be sought under the names of Nizami, Omar Khayyām, Jalāl-ad-dīn Rumī, Sa’dī, Hafez, and Jāmī.  3
  Firdawsī is pre-eminently the heroic poet of Persia. His full name seems to have been Abulqasīm Hasan (Ahmad or Mansur); the appellative “Firdawsī” (Paradise), by which he is known to fame, was bestowed upon him, according to some accounts, by his royal patron the Sultan Mahmūd. Firdawsī’s native place was Tūs in Khorāsān. By descent he was heir to that Persian pride and love of country which the Arab conquest could not crush. By birth, therefore, this singer possessed more than ordinary qualifications for chanting in rhythmical measures the annals of ancient Iran. He had undoubtedly likewise made long and careful preparation for his task, equipping himself by research into the Pahlavī or Middle Persian sources, from which he drew material for his chronicle-poem. From statements in the ‘Shāh Nāmah’ itself, we may infer that Firdawsī was nearly forty years of age when, with his extraordinary endowments, he made the real beginning of his monumental work. We likewise know, from personal references in the poem, that he had been married and had two children. The death of his beloved son is mourned in touching strains. One of the crowning events now in the poet’s life was his entrance into the literary circle of the court of Sultan Mahmūd of Ghazna, who ruled 998–1030. To Mahmūd the great epic is finally dedicated, and the story of Firdawsī’s career may best be told in connection with the masterpiece.  4
  The removal of the heroic bard Daqīqī by fate and by the assassin’s dagger had left open the way for an ambitious epic poet. Firdawsī was destined to be the fortunate aspirant. A romantic story tells of his coming to the court of Sultan Mahmūd. This legendary account says that when he first approached the Round Table, the three court poets, Ansarī, Farrukhī, and Asjadī wished no intruder into their favored circle of poetic composition, and accordingly sought to rid themselves of his unwelcome presence by putting him to shame. They suggested a trial of metrical skill in improvisation. The first of the three poets chose a very difficult Persian word (javshan—“cuirass”) to which there was hardly a rhyming word known,—like the English twelfth, window, silver, chilver (woolly ewe). Firdawsī, they thought, would not be able to complete the quatrain. So Ansarī began:—
  “The glance of thy face rivals moonlight or silver;”
  5
  Farrukhī matched this with:—
  “Thy cheek’s downy bloom is as soft as the chilver;”
  6
  Asjadī continued the puzzling catchword by:—
  “Thy eyelashes pierce through the warrior’s cuirass;”
  7
  Firdawsī instantly added:—
  “As did Giw’s fatal lance-stroke at Pashan harass.”
  8
  The readiness of this response, and the interesting historical allusion, which was unknown to the coterie until Firdawsī proceeded in perfect verse to tell the story of the fateful battle between the two heroes whom he had mentioned,—both these facts won generous admiration and applause from Ansarī, Farrukhī, and Asjadī. Charmed by Firdawsī’s poetic grace, and impressed by his power and his learning, they unhesitatingly recognized him as their compeer or superior, and proceeded in every way to advance him in favor with the Sultan. If true, such an example of disinterestedness would not be easy to parallel in the East or elsewhere. Unfortunately this pretty story, although it is written in very choice Persian, is commonly now regarded as mere fiction or a baseless fabrication. Nevertheless it conveys some idea of the general estimate in which Firdawsī’s genius was held. We also know that this poet laureate lived long in the sunshine of the court, and was promised a gold piece for each line he composed. The liberality of Sultan Mahmūd’s favor called forth from Firdawsī a splendid poetical panegyric, that is only eclipsed by the fierce savageness of the scathing satire which later the poet poured out against his royal patron, when disappointed in old age of the promised reward that was to crown his great work.  9
  Tradition narrates that Firdawsī was a septuagenarian when he finished the last line of the sixty thousand rhyming couplets that make up the ‘Shāh Nāmah.’ He now looked for the reward of his life’s work. But jealousy and intrigue against him had not been idle during his long residence at court. The Grand Vizier appears to have induced the Sultan to send Firdawsī sixty thousand silver dirhems, instead of the promised gold. Firdawsī is said to have been in the bath when the elephant laden with the money-bags arrived. On discovering the deception, the injured poet rejected the gift with scorn, and dividing the silver into three portions, he presented one of these to the bath steward, the second to the elephant-driver, and he gave the last to the man who brought him a glass of cordial. He then wrote the famous satire upon Mahmūd, and fled from the city for his life. For ten years the aged singer was an exile, and he would have been a wanderer but for the friendly protection extended to him by a prince of Irāq, who apparently also tried, without effect, to reconcile the Sultan and the aged poet. Enjoying the solace of this prince’s shelter, Firdawsī composed his last work, the ‘Yusuf and Zulīkha,’ a romantic poem nearly as long as the Iliad, on Joseph and the passionate love of Potiphar’s wife for him.  10
  But Firdawsī was now advanced to his eightieth year, and he seems to have longed to visit his native town of Tūs once more. A sad story is preserved of his death of a broken heart. It is also told that Mahmūd relented and sent to the city of Tūs a magnificent caravan conveying gifts and robes for the aged singer, and bearing likewise the sixty thousand gold pieces that had once been promised. But all too late. The treasure-laden camel procession met at the city gate the funeral cortège that was conducting the dead poet’s body to the grave. Firdawsī’s death occurred in 1020. His tomb at Tūs is still a place of pious pilgrimage.  11
  The story of the ‘Shāh Nāmah,’—Book of Kings,—may be described in briefest words as the chronicle-history of the empire of Iran, from the moment of its rise in legendary antiquity and during the golden reign of King Jamshīd, through its glorious ascendency under the majesty of the Kayanian rulers, and down to the days of Zoroaster; thence onward to the invasion of Persia by Alexander the Great. The poem from this point follows the various fortunes and changes of the Persian sovereignty, until its downfall and ruin before the Mohammedans and Islam. Firdawsī naturally treats his subject as a poetic chronicler, not as a historian; but there is history in the poem, and he has given a certain unity to his long epic by keeping sight of the aim that he had in view, which was to exalt the fallen glory of Iran. The epic is written in a style befitting the theme. A word must also be bestowed upon Firdawsī’s romantic poem ‘Yusuf and Zulīkha,’ in which the Biblical story of Joseph, as narrated in the Quran, was his source. This poem was in great measure the work of his old age, as it was written after he was seventy; but in the episode of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife the luxuriousness of color, the richness of imagery, the lavish exuberance, and the passion, might in some degree allow of comparison with Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis,’ or with Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander.’  12
  Translations of Firdawsī should be mentioned. There is an English abridgment of the ‘Shāh Nāmah’ with versions in prose and in rhyme by James Atkinson—‘Shāh Nāmah’ (London, 1832; cheaply reprinted in the ‘Chandos Series,’ New York, 1886). Several versified selections are found in Robinson—‘Persian Poetry for English Readers’ (privately printed; Glasgow, 1883). There is a standard French prose translation of the entire ‘Shāh Nāmah’ by Jules Mohl—‘Le Livre des Rois’ (7 vols., Paris, 1876–78). An Italian prose rendering, also complete, has been made by Italo Pizzi—‘Firdusi, Il Libro dei Re’ (8 vols., Turin, 1886–89); and Pizzi has given extensive metrical renderings in his ‘Storia della Poesia Persiana’ (Turin, 1894). In German, there is a running paraphrase of the story by Görres—‘Heldenbuch von Iran’ (2 vols., Berlin, 1820). Spirited renderings of selections have also appeared in German: by A. F. von Schack—‘Heldensagen des Firdusi’ (3 vols., Stuttgart, 1877); and by Rückert (unfinished)—‘Firdosi’s Königsbuch Schahname’ (ed. Bayer, 3 vols., Berlin, 1890–95). Of the ‘Yusuf and Zulīkha’ (complete) there is a German translation into rhymed verse by O. Schlechta-Wssehrd—‘Jussuf und Suleicha’ (Vienna, 1889).  13
 
 
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