Persian Poetry in English
The Shahnameh is the national epic of Persia.
Like many epics, it is framed as a history— not the history of a war (The Iliad) or of an individual
(The Odyssey) or of a mythical turning point in a people’s self-creation
(The Aeneid), but of many wars, many individuals and many such turning points.
The sweep and psychological depth of the Shahnameh is nothing less than magnificent.
In its pages are unforgettable moments of national triumph and failure, human
courage and cruelty, blissful love and bitter grief. It explores loyalty,
familial conflict, duty; it chronicles the burdens of empire and the resentments
and rebellions of the misused; it recounts the striving for justice and civilized
order in times of turmoil and danger.
As a window on a world, the Shahnameh belongs in the company of such literary masterpieces as the Maharabata of India, Dante’s Divina Commedia, the plays of Shakespeare, and the epics of Homer—classics whose reach and range brings whole cultures into view. In such works, honored by every generation, one feels that human life in all its richness and variety is somehow present, that the author has seen both panoramically and profoundly.
"Thanks to Davis’s magnificent translation,
Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh live again in English.”
--Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World
Iran's national epic, the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, has
traditionally been regarded by both Persians and Westerners as a poem celebrating
the the central role of monarchy in Persian history. In this groundbreaking
book, Epic and Sediiton, Dick Davis argues that the poem is far more than
a patriotic chronicle of kingly deeds. Rather, it is a subtle and highly
ambiguous discussion of authority, and far from being a celebration of monarchy,
its most famous episodes and heroes amount to a radical critique of the institution.
The story of Rostam and Esfandiyar displays a surprisingly modern skepticism about the values we associate with Ferdowsi's epic. It expresses a profound ambivalence about the demands of heroism, and is sharply critical of a monarch who exploits the courage and loyalty of his heroes to further his own selfish ends.
The Legend of Seyavash begins with the stuff of romance—a foreign girl of royal blood, found as a fugitive and introduced into the king’s harem, gives birth to a son, Seyavash, who is raised not by his father the king, but by the great hero Rostam. On Seyavash’s return home Sudabeh, his step-mother, attempts to seduce him, and when he spurns her she accuses him of having attempted to rape her.
In Borrowed Ware, Davis's prodigious scholarship of Persian poetry has enabled him to select a wide range of poems, from both famous (Hafez, Sa’adi, Rumi) and little-known Persian poets (Jahan Khatun, Kamaladdin Esmail, Khaju). The result is some of the best English translations of Persian poetry ever. Davis has maintained exceptional faithfulness to the original Persian while recasting the poems' grace and drive in English.
Diary of a Tree is a poem in two books from the point of view of a tree. Born in Tehran, Iran in 1944, Goli Khalatbary followed her father through his diplomatic postings as a girl.
One rhyming phrase, a kind of gentler and
sweeter echo of Ferdowsi’s “razm
o bazm,” “fighting and feasting,” that occurs in Vis and
Ramin, and occasionally in other poems including a well-known example by
Hafez, is "gol o mol,” literally “roses and wine”;
it is tempting to think that this charming catchphrase is the origin of our “wine
and roses” as symbols of a life of fleeting pleasure. (Both words are
Persian and pre-Islamic in origin, not Arabic, so the same rhyming association
could well have been made in Parthian Persia, where the Vis and Ramin story
originated, or even before then.)
–– From “Wine and Persian Poetry” by Dick Davis in, From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table
The world's a scale where men are weighed -
The worse they are the more they boast;
But that's the way that scales are made -
The emptier pan's the uppermost.