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Classical Persian Poetry

Persian poetry, as I’ve written before, is an important part of Iranian culture and you will find references to Iran’s most famous poems all throughout Iranian literature, music, and in the Persian language itself. Poets in the fifteenth century were expected to have read practically the entire corpus of Persian poetry prior to composing even their first poem due to the fact that the Persian poetic tradition values refinement of existing conventions more so than it does innovation. The Persian poetic tradition is one that builds upon itself.

The Language of Persian Poetry

The language of Persian poetry is largely metaphorical in nature and has developed over the centuries from consisting of similes such as – tears that roll down one’s cheeks like pearls becoming so commonplace that, in the end, tears that roll down cheeks began to be referred to simply as pearls, while tears that glisten like stars simply became stars, and lips as red as rubies became rubies. A face as round and as lovely as the moon would be referred to as a moon, so a poet could compose a verse such as “bound a necklace of pearls onto the moon” and the Persian audience would take this to mean that the subject’s face was covered in tears.

In early (15th to 18th century) ghazals, the metaphor was a greatly prized aspect of Persian poetry. The underlying logic of the metaphors often seen in ghazals was: if A shares an attribute with B, and B shares any attribute with C, then A = C. As an example, referring to someone’s lips as sabz (سبزmeant dark, but since the literal meaning of sabz is “green” and parrots are generally green, the lip becomes a parrot. Parrots in this early tradition of ghazals were used to speak of sweet speech; therefore making the parrot shikarkha (شکرخا) or sugar-chewing, so the final phase of this metaphor would be to have the parrot chewing the sugar of the subject’s lips. The uninitiated reader of this metaphor in an 18th-century ghazal would certainly be confused, but that is the nature of metaphors in language – English certainly contains metaphors that would leave the Persian speaker confused or expressions that a Persian speaker would find strange or distasteful.

Tajnis (تجنیس) or homonymy, paronomasia, or the pun was a poetic device employed by all poets. A “perfect” tajnis occurs when two homophonous sequences give vastly different meanings, as in Nizami’s bargrezan (برگریزان)  being used to mean “autumn” and zi barg rezan (ز برگ ریزان) being used to mean “dripping from the leaves.” Here are the lines from a selection of Nizami’s “Layli u Majnun” that demonstrates tajnis:

شرط است که وقت برگریزان       خونابه شود ز برگ ریزان

Nizami’s Layli u Majnun is an old Arabic story of the tragic love between Layli and Qays, who were forbidden to marry each other which drove Qays mad and left him wandering through the desert singing lyrics of his love for Layli. The selection above is from Nizami’s book which describes Layli’s deathbed on which she confesses her undying love for Majnun.

Metrics and Prosody of Persian Poetry

Due to the inherent inadequacies with the Arabic script, namely the lack of any indication of occurrences of the ezafe, and the orthographic similarity of many Persian verbal tenses, further complicated by the inverse word order in poetry – Persian poems cannot be easily read without first establishing the meter of the poem.


Digraphs such as sh (ش), ch (چ), kh (خ), gh ( ق غ گ), and zh (ز ظ ض) count as one consonant since they represent only one sound in Persian. One of the two consonants in any word ending in a doubled consonant like قد and در can be deleted.


The short vowels in Persian are a, i, and u, as in درد, دل. The long vowels are ɐ ə ɪ ɔ (IPA symbols) as in جانان میبینی, پیش, پوش, پول. The Persian dipthongs/glides are aw and ay and are counted as full consonants.


Rhyme in Persian poetry technically consists of one vowel, long or short, plus one or more consonants. Rhyme may be masculine or feminine. Anything else that follows the rhyme itself is loosely termed radif (ردیف). Radif can be extended indefinitely, and a good example of this can be seen in a ghazal by Ghalib, in which the rhyme is –ar. The radif, necessarily repeated whenever the rhyme comes, is natavan guft (نتوان گفت). Here are a few lines from the aforementioned ghazal by Ghalib:

دل برد و حق آنست که دلبر نتوان گفت     بیداد توان دید و ستمر نتوان گفت

Poetry-Specific Terminology:

Below are some words and definitions that are specifically used in reference to certain poetic elements. This vocabulary is useful in order to be able to speak about and read about Persian poetry in a well-informed manner.

بیت (bayt) – stitch, line, verse

فرد (fard) – one detached hemistich

مصرع (misra) – hemistitch, half-verse, half line

مطلع (matla) – first stitch of qasida or ghazal

مقطع (maqta) – last stitch of qasida or ghazal

تخلص (takhallus) – pen name

The Gulistan of Sa’di

Sa’di’s Gulistan is perhaps one of the most widely read books to ever be produced. From around the time it was written, it was the first book ever studied by children in school throughout the Persian-speaking world. Quotations from the Gulistan appear in nearly every type of literature and it is the source of every day proverbial statements, much like Shakespeare in English. Chapter One of the Gulistan, The Conduct of Kings, demonstrates that Sa’di favors prudence and conservative conduct above all else in kings. Sa’di also very much favors justice, which is the first duty of a Persian ruler. Sa’di uses the term مصلحت (maslahat)  to refer to “prudent conduct.” The term appears ten times in the first chapter of the Gulistan – the term means the correct course of action or the course of action in one’s best interests under any given circumstances and in any situation. Below is a selection from Chapter One of the Gulistan, known as Story Seven:

حکایت ۷

پادشاهی با غلامی عجمی در کشتی نشست و غلام دیگر دریارا ندیده بود و محنت کشتی نیازموده. گریه و زاری در نهاد و لرزه بر اندامش اوفتاد. چندانکه ملاطفت کردند آرام نمیگرفت و ملک را عیش ازو منغص شد. چاره ندانستند. حکیمی در آن کشتی بود. ملک را گفت اگر فرمان دهی من اورا بطریفی خاموش گردانم. گفت غایت لطف و کرم باشد. بفرمود تا غلام بدریا انداختند. باری چند غوطه خورد. مویش بگرفتند و پیش کشتی آوردند. بدو دست در سکان کشتی آویخت. چون برآمد بگوشه ای بنشست و قرار یافت. ملک را عجب آمد پرسید درین چه حکمت بود؟ گفت از اول محنت غرقه شدن ناچشیده بود و قدر سلامت کشتی نمی دانست. همچنین قدر عافیت کسی داند که بمصیبتی گرفتار آید


ای سیر٬ ترا نان جوین خوش ننماید
معشوق منست آنکه بنزدیک تو زشتست
حوران بهشتی را دوزخ بود اعراف
از دوزخیان پرس که اعاف بهشتست
فرقست میان آنکه یارش در بر تا آنکه دو چشم انتظارش بر در

Story 7

A king sat in a boat with a Persian slave. The slave had never seen the sea before or experienced the discomfort of a boat. He began to cry and moan, and his body began to tremble. No matter how they tried to comfort him, he would not calm down, and the king was annoyed. No one knew what to do. There was a wise man in the boat, who said to the king, “If you command, I know a way to silence him.”

“That would be the utmost of kindness and generosity,” the king replied.

Thereupon he ordered the slave thrown overboard into the sea. He went under a few times, and then they grabbed him by the hair and pulled him over to the boat. He clung to the rudder and both hands, and when he got on, he sat in a corner and calmed down. The king was amazed and asked, “What was the wisdom in this?” “In the beginning,” he replied, “he had not tasted the tribulation of being drowned, and he did not appreciate the safety of the boat. Thus, it is that only one who has experienced calamity appreciates well-being.”

O satiated one, barley bread does not look good to you: the one that you think is ugly is my beloved.

For the houris of paradise, purgatory would be hell; ask the denizens of hell if for them purgatory would not be paradise. hell if for them purgatory would not be paradise.

There is a difference between one whose beloved is in his arms and one whose eyes are expectantly upon the door.

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