A Brief History of Metaphor in
Persian Poetry

Dick Davis on Literary Forms That Have Lasted a Thousand Years

A significant feature of Persian poetry that distinguishes it from most verse written in a European language is that almost all of it—from the earliest poems, written over a thousand years ago, to the present day—remains relatively accessible to a contemporary speaker of the language. The 17th-century English poet Edmund Waller bemoaned the fact that, already, his contemporaries could no longer easily read the works of the 14th-century poet Chaucer:

But who can hope his lines should long
Last in a daily changing tongue…
We write in sand, our language grows,
And like the tide our work o’erflows.
Chaucer his sense can only boast,
The glory of his numbers lost!

And as if to confirm Waller’s complaint, it was in Waller’s lifetime that passages from Chaucer were first “translated” into contemporary English, by Dryden. The Persian language, especially its literary form, has remained far more stable over the past millennium than is true of most European languages. There have been some changes of vocabulary and grammar, but by Western standards they are minor: a modern-day Iranian can read the works of the 10th-century poet Ferdowsi with about the same ease as a modern-day English speaker can read those of 17th-century authors such as Waller and Dryden; there are some difficulties for a non-specialist in the period, but they do not obscure what is usually the obvious sense and rhetorical force of any given passage. A side-effect of the fact that poems from centuries ago can seem and sound relatively “contemporary” to the Persian reader is that such poems could be—and were—taken as models by poets from a much later date, and this in turn has led to a quite extraordinary continuity of poetic rhetoric from the earliest poems until at least the mid-19th century, and even beyond that period.

There is perhaps something else at work in this rhetorical continuity: all poetry is artificial in its language, but poetry in English has frequently tended to aim at “language really used by men,” as Wordsworth put it, and when this is the case it tries, as far as possible, to disguise its artifice; by contrast pre-modern Persian poetry tends to display, and delight in, its artifice. To say a poem in English sounds “artificial” is to condemn it; the same remark about a pre-modern Persian poem could well elicit the response “Of course it does; it’s a poem, isn’t it?” And so the fact that a particular metaphor or rhetorical trope has been used by many other poets, and is thought of as intrinsically “poetic” rather than as colloquial, is not so much a barrier to its continued use as a validation of it.

The poets Ayyuqi (10th–11th centuries) and Nezami (12th century) both say that the poet is like the woman who tends to a bride’s physical appearance before her wedding; that is, the poet uses his or her skill and artifice to make the subject as dazzlingly beautiful as possible. Other common metaphors used by poets themselves to describe poetry are that it is something woven, such as brocade, or a piece of jewelry, such as a pearl necklace. All three of these metaphors emphasize the aesthetic, artificial, fabricated, and artisanal nature of the craft, rather than, say, its sincerity or its truth-telling qualities as they are foregrounded in much Western poetry (“to hold…the mirror up to nature,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says).

To indicate something of the density and complexity of this artifice in pre-modern Persian poetry, here is a translation of a very early poem that is made up almost entirely of motifs that belonged to a common stock widely utilized by other poets for centuries to come. The poem is by the tenth-century poet Rabe’eh, who, as is appropriate for this volume, is the earliest-known woman poet to write in Persian:

The garden shows so many flowers, as though
Mani had painted their resplendent glow

Dawn’s breezes never bore Tibetan musk,
How is the world so musky when they blow?

Are Majnun’s eyes within the clouds, that they
Shed Layli’s cheeks’ hue on each rose below?

Like wine within an agate glass, his tears
Have filled each tulip with their crimson glow

Raise up the wine bowl, raise it generously
Since bad luck dogs deniers who say “No”

Narcissi glow with silver and with gold
It’s Kasra’s crown their shining petals show

Like nuns in purple cowls the violets bloom
Do they turn into Christians as they grow?

The poem is a baharieh—that is, a poem welcoming the spring, a form that is still, a thousand years later, a recognized category of Persian poetry—and it is set in the archetypal beautiful place for Persian culture, the locus amoenus to end them all, a garden. But what is “Mani,” the third-century founder of the religion of Manicheism, doing in the poem? In Persian lore he was also a painter whose beautiful paintings looked so true to life that they deceived both people and animals, and this accounts for “painted” in the second line. Because the flowers are compared to Mani’s paintings, this means they must be very beautiful, and Persian poetry takes it for granted that beauty is a major concern of every civilized person. And something else is also going on here: Mani was the founder of a pre-Islamic religion seen as a heresy by Moslems, and yet he is mentioned, apparently favorably, in a poem written by someone we presume to be a Moslem.

The Persian language, especially its literary form, has remained far more stable over the past millennium than is true of most European languages.

Persian poetry often mentions religions other than Islam, and in short lyric poems, like this one, the reference is almost always either favorable or neutral; it virtually never implies condemnation (this is less true of long didactic poems, in which religions other than Islam are sometimes implicitly or explicitly condemned). This suggests that Persian lyric poetry perhaps sees itself as somewhat at odds with an exclusively Islamic world-view, or at least as not prepared to denigrate other religions in its favor, and this is indeed the case.

Persian lyric poetry is in general welcomingly receptive to both the pre-Islamic past and non-Islamic faiths. The implication is that there is not one sole Truth applicable at all times to all people; that other ways of being, from the past or as an adherent of another faith, can be considered to be equally valid. Later on, such references were read as allegorical (the mention of a figure from another religion, for example, was seen as a metaphor for one who transmits mystical knowledge—that is, a knowledge outside of the mainstream of “orthodox” Islam), and in later poems they are often allegorical, but they were meant quite literally, for themselves, in Rabe’eh’s poems, as they were in the poems of her contemporaries and of many subsequent poets.

Regarded as particularly refreshing and pleasant, the cool breeze of dawn, referred to in the second stanza of the poem, is a constituent of the idealized landscapes of much Persian poetry. This breeze apparently brings the scent of musk, the most valued and expensive of medieval perfumes, and again we see that we are being presented with an idealized situation in which everything, including the scented air, is as beguilingly charming and special as possible. The musk comes from Tibet, a remote and exotic place for the speaker, and the poem momentarily opens on a distant, almost fabulous, reality, as with the mention of Mani. Here the musk is a metaphor for the scent of the garden’s flowers as it is diffused by the breeze, the logic being that musk is the most precious perfume, so the flowers in this idealized garden share its scent, and this rare, idealized loveliness provokes wonder in the speaker. Wonder at what seems perfect (a garden, a person, a state of mind—usually love or grief ), or extreme to the point of unreality, is a very commonly evoked effect in Persian poetry.

Next we come to Layli and Majnun, star-crossed lovers from an originally 7th-century Arabic tale that quickly spread all over the Islamic world. Since he is a tragic figure, unable to be united with his beloved, Majnun is often represented as weeping and this is why he is mentioned in the third stanza of the poem as being “within the clouds”—he is weeping the dew onto the flowers below him (dew continues the implication that the poem is describing a scene in the early morning, which is considered to be the loveliest and most refreshing time of day).

Persian lyric poetry is in general welcomingly receptive to both the pre-Islamic past and non-Islamic faiths.

Layli’s cheeks are imagined as red, either as an indication of her beauty or of her flushed, bewildered distress, or both, so Majnun’s tears, which are the same color as her cheeks, are red. The conceit is that the tears are bloody, indicating that Majnun has wept so long and so hard that his eyes are injured and he weeps blood; with the same implication of relentless injurious weeping, tears are almost always referred to as red in pre-modern Persian verse (an exception is when they are compared to pearls). So the roses are red because Majnun has wept his red tears onto them. The metaphor is continued in the next stanza, in which tulips are compared to wine glasses (short wild tulips, whose shape is easy to imagine as like that of a wine glass, are meant), and in which the dew/bloody tears present in these wine glasses is implicitly being compared to red wine. The association of red flowers (almost always roses or tulips), bloody tears, and wine is common in Persian verse, with any one of the three being able to stand in metaphorically for either of the other two.

Having implied the presence of wine, Rabe’eh now runs with the idea and brings literal wine into the poem, admonishing the reader (in Rabe’eh’s time more likely a listener, as lyric poetry was meant to be performed rather than silently read) to drink deeply, and to ignore those who would censor such behavior. The obvious candidates for people who would find fault in this way are strictly orthodox Moslems, as the drinking of wine is forbidden by Islam. This trope, of the wine drinker criticized by the strictly orthodox (often characterized as being hypocrites), with the poet explicitly siding with the drinker against the orthodox, became extremely common in Persian lyric verse.

Again we see behavior that is at odds with strict Islamic norms being celebrated, and again we find later generations taking the trope as an elaborate metaphor for Sufi (mystical) experience (wine is the mystical knowledge or practice which brings about the “drunkenness” of mystical experience). This is true of later Persian poetry, and from the late 15th century onward, mention of wine in a poem is, as often as not, allegorical. However, this “Sufification” of the vocabulary of secular Persian poetry had not even begun in Rabe’eh’s time, and there can be no doubt that she is talking about literal wine here.

As the poem is written to welcome the coming of spring, it would be associated in the minds of its first readers/auditors with Nowruz, the pre-Islamic festival held at the spring equinox, which heralds the Persian New Year. This festival is still celebrated in Iran and is perhaps the only festival in which all Iranians, whatever faith they profess, participate. Wine was drunk in the pre-Islamic celebrations of Nowruz, and because of this and similar ceremonies, wine retained its association with pre-Islamic Iran, and the pre-Islamic religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism. The mention of wine drunk in spring therefore introduces another non-Islamic religion into the poem, not explicitly but by an implication any educated Iranian reader would recognize.

Also, by implication, the line that dismisses those who criticize the drinking of wine, who are most likely to be orthodox Moslems, suggests a tension between the religion that condemns wine (Islam) and the religion that celebrates it (Zoroastrianism). The opposition does not merely consist of refraining from wine or drinking it, but by extension of celebrating worldly pleasures or of condemning them; many Persian poems implicitly associate worldly pleasures such as wine drinking with Zoroastrianism and pre-Islamic Iran, and the conjunction of the two is contrasted with Islam, which is often characterized, in poetry at least, as condemning such pleasures. This tacit association of pre-Islamic Iran with Zoroastrianism and pleasurable celebration leads us to the poem’s next lines, which include a mention of “Kasra.”

Kasra is a corruption of “Khosrow” and refers to the pre-Islamic king Khosrow I, also known as Anushirvan (“Of Immortal Soul”), who ruled Iran from 531 to 579 CE, and was one of the most successful of the pre-Islamic kings, to the extent that his reign was remembered as a golden age of justice and prosperity. Rabe’eh has made specific the suggestion of pre-Islamic Iran, implied by the lines on wine, by alluding to what was in folk memory the country’s most splendid imperial moment. That it is the imperial aspect of his reign that is emphasized is indicated by the reference to the gold and silver of his crown, to which the color of the garden’s narcissi is compared. Two related tropes common to Persian verse are present here: one is the lost glory of Iran’s imperial past; and the other is that all glory is fleeting, that dynasties die and the sites of their splendor return to nature.

Many Persian poems implicitly associate worldly pleasures such as wine drinking with Zoroastrianism and pre-Islamic Iran.

The last two lines bring the poem back to the present, but not to the immediate circumstances of Rabe’eh’s daily life, which will of course have been Moslem; by referring to Christian nuns, the poem ends by evoking another non-Islamic religion. She is referring to something that is known to her but absent from her own life’s immediate Moslem circumstances, something which she would not have experienced directly, just as she would not have known the Zoroastrian glories of Kasra’s reign; the poem ends by reaching out to two “exotic” realities, one from the past and one from another religious community, that are nevertheless imaginatively present for the poet.

And we can say that, if the poem is by Rabe’eh, it also ends with what looks like an approving, or at least certainly not disapproving and perhaps affectionate, smile for her non-Moslem sisters. If the poem is by Rabe’eh, that is, because the last thing it shares with many other short Persian poems is that it has been mistakenly attributed to at least two other poets of the early medieval period, Rudaki and Suzani-ye Samarqandi. Different manuscripts attribute a large number of short Persian poems to different authors and the authorship of many poems, particularly from the earliest periods, remains doubtful; in this case, though, the scholarly consensus is that the poem is by Rabe’eh.

And so, packed into one short poem, we have: spring, a garden, the breeze at dawn, the most valued medieval perfume (musk), an evocation of a distant land (Tibet), wonder at an ideally beautiful situation, a reference to a tragic Arab love story, blood-red tears, non-judgmental references to two non-Islamic faiths (Manicheism and Christianity) and the evocation of a third (Zoroastrianism), a reference to a glorious pre-Islamic Persian king, the admonition to drink wine, and a kind of flippant contempt for those who would frown on this. The poem is superficially a simple celebration of the coming of spring, and this is a perfectly legitimate way to read it, but it is implicitly and deliberately entangled in a complicated mesh of cultural references that would be obvious to its original audience and to later readers from the same culture but which can be elusive for a reader from another cultural tradition. All of these poetic strategies, tropes, and metaphors constantly recur in Persian poetry as it was written for a thousand years subsequent to Rabe’eh’s poem.


Dick Davis Mirror of My Heart

Excerpted from The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women, translated by Dick Davis. Used with the permission of Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Mage Publishers.

Dick Davis
Dick Davis
Dick Davis is a translator, a poet, and a scholar of Persian literature who has published more than 20 books. He is currently a professor of Persian at Ohio State University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His translations from Persian include The Lion and the ThroneFathers and Sons, and Sunset of Empire: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, vols. I, II, III.

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