1902 Encyclopedia > Firdausi

Persian poet
(c. 940-1020)

FIRDOUSI (also spelt as FIRDAUSI or FERDAWSI). Abu’l Casim Mansur, who took the nom de plume of Firdousi, was a Persian poet of great eminence, and is chiefly known to European readers by his magnificent epic poem the Shahnamah, or "Book of Kings," a complete history of Persia in nearly 60,000 verses. He was born at Shadab, a suburb of Tus, about the year 329 of the Hegina (841 A.D.). His father, Maulana Ahmed, son of maulana Fakhr-ed din el Firdousi, belonged to the class of Dihkans (the old native country families and landed proprietors of Persia, who had preserved their influence and status under the Arab rule), and possessed an estate in the neighborhood of Tus. Firdousi’s own education eminently qualified him for the gigantic task which he subsequently undertook, for he was profoundly versed in the Arabic language and literature, and had also studied deeply the Pehlavi or Old Persian, and was conversant with the ancient historical records which existed in that tongue. As his history is intimately connected with that of the grand epic which he composed; it will be necessary to say a few words concerning the origin of the latter and the nature of the authorities from which it was compiled.

An epic poem, properly so called, is a collection of the ballads and songs, in which the memory of heroic deeds is always preserved in the earlier periods of a people’s history, thrown by the rhapsodists into a connected and consecutive form. To become national and to take hold on the people’s hearts it must contain nothing but the genuine national legends and traditions, and must have grown spontaneously . many attempts have been made by poets of different nations to create a national epic, but they have always failed for the lack of the elements above referred to. Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aenied are typical specimens of the real and spurious epic, - the former breathing in every line the true spirit of the Hellenic nation, and always rousing the national enthusiasm and appealing to the national feeling; the latter never having been regarded by the Latin race with any deeper feeling than that of admiration for its literary merits. The Shahnamah of Firdousi is perhaps the only exception of a poem produced by a single author, and at once taking its place as the national epic of the people. The nature of the work, the materials from which it was composed, and the circumstance under which it was written are, however, in themselves exceptional, and necessarily tended to this result. The grandeur and antiquity of the empire and the vicissitudes through which it passed, their long series of wars and the magnificent monuments erected by their ancient sovereign, could not fail to leave numerous traces in the memory of so imaginative a people as the Persians.

As early as the 5th century of the Christian era we find mention made of these historical traditions in the work of an Armenian author, Moses of Khorene. During rhe reign of Naushirwan, the contemporary of Mahomet, and by order of that monarch, an attempt had been made to collect, from various parts of the kingdom, all the popular tales and legends relating to the ancient kings, and the results were deposited in the royal library. Under the last sovereign of the Sassanian dynasty, Yezdegird, the work was resumed, the former collection being revised and greatly added to by the Dihkan Danishwer, assisted by several learned mibeds. His work was entitled the Khodai-nameh, which in the old dialect also meant the "Book of Kings." On the Areab invasions this work was in great danger of perishing at the hands of the iconoclastic caliph Omar and his generals, but it was fortunately preserved; and we find it in the 2d century of the Hegira being paraphrased in Arabic by Abdallah ibn el Mokaffa, a learned Persian who had embraced Islam. Other Guebres occupied themselves privately with the collection of these traditions; and, when a prince of Persian origin, Yakub ibn Leith, founder of the Soffaride dynasty, succeeded in throwing off his allegiance to the caliphate, he at once set about continuing the work of his illustrious predecessors. His "Book of Kings" was completed in the year 260 of the Hegiura, and was freely circulated in Khorassan and Irak. Yakub’s family did not continue long in power; but the Samanian princes, descendants of the Sassanians, who succeeded hem, applied themselves zealously to the same work, and entrusted it to the poet Dakiki himself, a Guebre by religion. Dakiki’s labors were brought to a sudden stop by his own assassination, and the fall of the Samanian house happened not long after, and their kingdom passed intot he hands of the Ghaznavides. Mahmud ibn Sebuktagin,the second of the dynasty (667-1030A.D.), continued tomake himself still more independent of the caliphate than his predecessors, and, though a warrior and a fanatical Moslem, extended a generous patronage to Persian literature and learning, and even developed it at the expense of the Arabic institutions. The task of continuing and completing the collection of the ancient historical traditions of the empire especially attracted him. With the assistance of neighboring princes and many of the influential Dihkans, Mahmud collected a vast amount of materials for the work, and after having searched in vain for a man of sufficient learning and ability to edit them faithfully, and having entrusted various episodes for versification to the numerous poets whom he had gathered round him, he at length made choice of Firdousi. Firdousi had been always strongly attracted by the ancient Pehlavi records, and had begun at an early age to turn them into Persian epic verse. On hearing of the death of the poet Dakiki, he conceived the ambitious design of himself carrying out the work which the latter had only just commenced; and although he had not then any introduction to the court, he contrived, thanks to one of his friends, Mohammed lashkari, to procure a copy of the Dihkan Danishwer’s collection, and at the age of thirty-six commenced his great undertaking. Abu mansour, the governor of Tus, patronized him and encouraged him by substantial pecuniary support. When Mahmud succeeded to the throne, and evinced such active interest in the work, Firdousi was naturally attracted to the court of Ghazmin. At first court jealousies and intrigues prevented Firdousi from being noticed by the sultan; but at length one of his friends, Mahek, undertook to present to Mahmud his poetic version of one of the well known episodes of the legendary history. Hearing that the poet was both at Tus, the sultan made him explain the origin of his native town, and was much struck with the intimate knowledge of ancient history which he displayed. Being presented to the seven poets who were then engaged on the projected epic, Abu’l Casim was admitted to their meetings, and on one occasion improvised a verse, at Mahmud’s request, in praise of his favorite Ayaz, with such success that the sultan bestowed upon him the name of Firdousi, saying that he had converted his assemblies into paradise (Firdous). During the early days of his sojourn at court, an incident happened which contributed in no small measure to the realization of his ambition. Three of the seven poets were drinking in a garden when Firdousi approached, and wishing to get rid of him without rudeness, they informed him who they were, and told him that it was their custom to admit none to their society but such as could give proof of poetical talent. To test his acquirements they proposed that each should furnish an extemporary line of verse, his own to be the last, and all three ending in the same rhyme. Firdousi accepted the challenge, and the three poets having previously agreed upon three rhyming words to which a fourth could not be found in the Persian language, ‘Ausari began-

Thy beauty eclipses the light of the sun;

Frarrakhi added –

The rose with thy cheek would comparison shun;

‘Asjadi continued-

Thy glances pierce through the mailed warrior’s johsun,
And Firdousi, without a moment’s hesitation, completed the quatrain –

Like the lance of fierce Giv in his fight with Poshun.

The poets asked for an explanation of this allusion, and Firdousi recited to them the battle as described in the Shahnamah, and delighted and astonished them with his learning and eloquence.

Mahmud now definitely selected him for the work of compiling and versifying the ancient legends, and bestowed upon him such marks of his favor and munificence as to elicit from the poet an enthusiastic panegyric, which is inserted in the preface of the Shahnamah, and forms a curious contrast to the bitter satire which he subsequently prefixed to the book. The sultan ordered his treasurer, Khojah Hasan Meimendi, to pay to Firdousi a thousand gold pieces for every thousand verses; but he poet preferred allowing the sum to accumulate till the whole was finished, with the object of amassing sufficient capital to construct a dike for his native town of Tus, which suffered greatly from defective irrigation, a project which had been the chief dream of his childhood. Owing to this resolution, and to the jealousy of Hasan Meimendi, who often refused to advance him sufficient for the necessaries of life, Firdousi passed the later portion of his life in great privation, though enjoying the royal favor and widely extended fame. Amongst other princes whose liberal presents enabled him to combat his pecuniary difficulties, was one Rustem, son of Fakhr ed dauleh, the Deilamite, who sent him a thousand gold pieces in acknowledgement of a copy of the episode of Rustem and Isfendiar which Firdousi had sent him, and promised him a gracious reception if he should ever come to his court. As this prince belonged, like Firdousi, to the Shiah sect, while Mahmud and Meimendi were Sunnites, and as he was also politically opposed to the sultan, Hasan meimendi did not fail to make the most of this incident, and accused the poet of disloyalty to his sovereign and patron, as well as of heresy. Other enemies And rivals also joined in the attack, and for some time Firdousi’s position was very precautious, though this pre-eminent talents and obvious fitness for the work prevented him from losing his post. To add to his troubles he had the misfortune to lose his only son at the age of 37.

At length the book was complted, and Firdousi entrusted it to Ayaz, the sultan’s favorite, for presentation to him. Mahmud ordered Hasan Meimendi to take the poet as much gold as an elephant could carry, but the jealous treasurer, persuaded the monarch that it was too generous a reward, and that an elephant’s load of silver would be sufficient. 60,000 silver dirhems were accordingly placed in sacks, and taken to Firdousi by Ayaz at the sultan’s command, instead of the 60,000 gold pieces, one for each verse, which had been promised. The poet was at that moment in the bath, and seeing the sacks, and believing that they contained the expected gold, received them with great satisfaction, but finding only silver he complained to Ayaz that he had not executed the sultan’s order. Ayaz related what had taken place between Mahmud and Hasan Meimendi, and Firdousi in a rage gave 20 thousand pieces to Ayaz himself, the same amount to the bath-keeper, and paid the rest to a beer seller for a glass of beer (fouka), sending word back to the sultan that it was not to gain money that he had taken so much trouble. On hearing this message, Mahmud at first reproached Hasan with having caused him to break his word, bbut the wily treasurer succeeded in turning his master’s anger upon Firdousi to such an extent that he threatened that on the morrow he would "cast that Carmathian (heretic) under the feet of his elephants." Being apprised by one of the nobles of the court of what had taken place, Firdousi passed the night in great anxiety; but passing in the morning by the gate that led from his own apartments into the palace, he met the sultan in his private garden, and succeeded by humble apologies in appeasing his wrath. He was, however, far from being appeased himself, and determined at once upon quitting Ghaznin. Returning home he tore up the draughts of some thousands of verses which he had composed and threw them in the fire, and repairing to the grand mosque of Ghaznin he wrote upon the walls, at the place where the sultan was in the habit of praying, the following lines: -

"The auspicious court of Mahmud, king of Zabulistan, is like a sea. What a sea! One cannot see its shore. If I have dived therein without finding any pearls it is the fault of my star and not of the sea."

He then gave a sealed paper to Ayaz, begging him to hand it to the sultan in a leisure moment after 20 days had elapsed. And set off on his travels with no better equipment than his staff and a dervish’c cloak. At the expiration of the 20 days Ayaz gave the paper to the sultan, who on opening it found the celebrated satire which is now always prefixed to copies of the Shahnamah, and which is perhaps one of the bitterest and severest pieces of reproach ever penned. Mahmud, in a violent rage, sent after the poet, and promised a large reward for his capture, but he was already in comparative safety. Firdousi directed his steps to Mazenderan, and took refuge with Kabous, prince of Jorjan, who at first received him with great favor, and promised him his continued protection and patronage; learning, however, the circumstances under which he had left Ghaznin, he feared the resentment of so powerful a sovereign as Mahmud, who he knew already coveted his kingdom, and dismissed the poet with a magnificent present. Firdousi next repaired to Baghdad, where he made the acquaintance of a merchant, who introduced him to the vizier of the caliph, El Cader Billah, by presenting an Arabic poem which the poet had composed in his honor. The vizier gave Firdousi an apartment near himself, and related to the caliph the manner in which he had been treted at Ghazmin. The caliph summoned him into his presence, and was so much pleased with a poem of a thousand couplets, which Firdousi composed in his honor, that he at once received him into favor. The fact of his having devoted his life and talents to chronicling the renown of fire-worshipping Persians was, however, somewhat of a crime in the orthodox caliph’s eyes; in order, therefore, to recover his prestige, Firdousi composed another poem, of 9000 couplets, on the theme borrowed from the Koran of the loves of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife – Yusuf and Zuleikha. This poem, though rare and little known, is still in existence – the Royal Asiatic Society possessing a copy. But Mahmud had by this time heard of his asylum at the court of the caliph, and wrote a letter menacing his liege lord, and demanding the surrender of the poet. Firdousi, to avoid further troubles, departed for Ahwz, a province of the Persian Irak, and dedicated his Yusuf and Zuleikha to the governor of that district. Thence he went to Kohistan, where the governor, Nasir Lek, was his intimate and devoted friend, and received him with great ceremony upon the frontier. Firdousi confided to him that he contemplated writing a bitter exposition of his shameful treatment at the hands of the sultan of Ghaznin; but Nasir Lek, who was a personal friend of the latter, dissuaded him from his purpose, but himself wrote and remonstrated with mahmud. Nasir Lek’s message and the urgent representations of Firdouso’s friends had the desired effect; and Mahmud not only expressed his intention of offering full reparation to the poet, but put his enemy Meimendi to death. The change, however, came too late; Firdousi, now a broken and decrepit old man, had in the meanwhile returned to Tus, and, while wandering through the streets of his native town, heard a child lisping a verse from his own satire,in which he taunts Mahmud with his slavish birth: -

"had Mahmud’s father been what he is now
A crown of gold gad decked this aged brow;
Had Mahmud’s mother been of gentle blood,
In heaps of silver knee-deep had I stood."

He was so affected by this proof of universal sympathy with his misfortunes that he went home, fell sick, and died. He was buried in a garden, but Aboul Casim Gourgani, chief sheikh of Tus, refused to read usual prayers over his tomb, alleging that he was an infidel, and had devoted his life to the glorification of fire-worshippers and misbelievers. The next night, however, having dreamt that he beheld Firdousi on paradise dressed in the sacred color, green, and wearing an emerald crown, he reconsidered his determination; and the poet was henceforth held to be perfectly orthodox. He died in the year 411 of the Hegira (1020 A.D.) , aged about eighty, eleven years after the completion of his great work. Mahmud had in the meanwhile dispatched the promised hundred thousand pieces of gold to Firdousi, with a robe of honor and ample apologies for the past. But as the camels bearing the treasure reached one of the gates of the city, Firdousi’s funeral was leaving it by another. His daughter, to whom they brought the sultant’s present, refused to receive it; but, his aged sister remembering his anxiety for the construction of the stone embankment for the river of Tus, this work was completed in honor of the poet’s memory, and a large caravanserai built with the surplus.

The Shahnamah is based, as we have seen, upon the ancient legends current among the populace of Persia, and collected by the Dihkans, a class of men who had the greatest facilities for this purpose. There is every reason to believe that Firdousi adhered faithfully to these records of antiquity, and that the poem is a perfect storehouse of the genuine traditions of the country. Among much that is marvelous or incongruous, therefore, we may fairly look for the records of real events; and there is no doubt that, studied by the light of modern criticism, the volume will prove of great service and interest to future historians and ethnologists.

The entire poem has been published with a French translation in a magnificent folio edition, at the expense of the French Government, by the late learned and indefatigable Jules de Mohl. The size and number of the volumes, however; and their great expense, make them difficult of access, while the original Persian, though easily procurable, is of course a sealed book to the majority of European readers. To supply this defect, Madame de Mohl has published in a cheap and convenient form the French translation, with her illustrious husband’s critical notes and introduction, This will henceforth be the standard work on the subject, containing as it does a resume of everything that has ever been written on the Shahnamah, or which can elucidate its contents. It is published at the "Imprimerie Nationale," Paris, under the title of Le Livre des Rois, par Abou’l kasim Firdouso, traduit et commente par Jules Mohl, Membre de l’Institut, Professeir au College de France; publie par Mme. Mohl, Paris, 1876-7. (E. H. P.)

The above article was written by Edward Henry Palmer, M.A., late Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge; Lord Almoner's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, 1871-81; murdered in Egypt, 1882, while serving on Government secret service; author of Arabic Grammar and Persian Dictionary.

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