1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Firdousī

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21704351911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 10 — FirdousīEdward Henry Palmer

FIRDOUSĪ, Firdausī or Firdusī, Persian poet. Abu ’l Kāsim Mansur (or Hasan), who took the nom de plume of Firdousī, author of the epic poem the Shāhnāma, or “Book of Kings,” a complete history of Persia in nearly 60,000 verses, was born at Shadab, a suburb of Tūs, about the year 329 of the Hegira (941 A.D.), or earlier. His father 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 neighbourhood of Tūs (in Khorasan). Firdousī’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 Pahlavi or Old Persian, and was conversant with the ancient historical records which existed in that tongue.

The Shāhnāma of Firdousī (see also Persia: Literature) is perhaps the only example of a poem produced by a single author which at once took its place as the national epic of the people. The nature of the work, the materials from which it was composed, and the circumstances 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 sovereigns, 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 Chorene (according to others, he lived in the 7th or 8th century). During the reign of Chosroes I. (Anushirvan) 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. During the last years of the Sassanid dynasty the work was resumed, the former collection being revised and greatly added to by the Dihkan Danishwer, assisted by several learned mobeds. His work was entitled the Khoda’ināma, which in the old dialect also meant the “Book of Kings.” On the Arab invasion 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 2nd 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, Yakūb ibn Laith, founder of the Saffarid 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 Hegira, and was freely circulated in Khorasan and Irak. Yakūb’s family did not continue long in power; but the Samanid princes who succeeded applied themselves zealously to the same work, and Prince Nūh II., who came to the throne in 365 A.H. (A.D. 976), entrusted it to the court poet Dakiki, a Guebre by religion. Dakiki’s labours 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 into the hands of the Ghaznevids. Mahmūd ibn Sabuktagin, the second of the dynasty (998–1030), continued to make 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 neighbouring princes and of 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 Firdousī. Firdousī had been always strongly attracted by the ancient Pahlavi 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, Mahommed Lashkari, to procure a copy of the Dihkan Danishwer’s collection, and at the age of thirty-six commenced his great undertaking. Abu Mansur, the governor of Tūs, patronized him and encouraged him by substantial pecuniary support. When Mahmud succeeded to the throne, and evinced such active interest in the work, Firdousī was naturally attracted to the court of Ghazni. At first court jealousies and intrigues prevented Firdousī 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 born at Tūs, 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 Kāsim was admitted to their meetings, and on one occasion improvised a verse, at Mahmud’s request, in praise of his favourite Ayāz, with such success that the sultan bestowed upon him the name of Firdousī, 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 Firdousī 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 four ending in the same rhyme. Firdousī 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, ’Ansari began—

  “Thy beauty eclipses the light of the sun”;

Farrakhi added—

  “The rose with thy cheek would comparison shun”;

’Asjadi continued—

  “Thy glances pierce through the mailed warrior’s johsun”;[1]

and Firdousī, 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 Firdousī recited to them the battle as described in the Shāhnāma, 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 favour and munificence as to elicit from the poet an enthusiastic panegyric, which is inserted in the preface of the Shāhnāma, and forms a curious contrast to the bitter satire which he subsequently prefixed to the book. The sultan ordered his treasurer, Khojah Hasan Maimandi, to pay to Firdousī a thousand gold pieces for every thousand verses; but the 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 Tūs, 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 Maimandi, who often refused to advance him sufficient for the necessaries of life, Firdousī passed the later portion of his life in great privation, though enjoying the royal favour and widely extended fame. Amongst other princes whose liberal presents enabled him to combat his pecuniary difficulties, was one Rustam, son of Fakhr Addaula, the Dailamite, who sent him a thousand gold pieces in acknowledgment of a copy of the episode of Rustam and Isfendiar which Firdousī had sent him, and promised him a gracious reception if he should ever come to his court. As this prince belonged, like Firdousī, to the Shiah sect, while Mahmud and Maimandi were Sunnites, and as he was also politically opposed to the sultan, Hasan Maimandi 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 Firdousī’s position was very precarious, though his 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, after thirty-five years’ work, the book was completed (1011), and Firdousī entrusted it to Ayāz, the sultan’s favourite, for presentation to him. Mahmud ordered Hasan Maimandi 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 Firdousī by Ayāz 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 Ayāz that he had not executed the sultan’s order. Ayāz related what had taken place between Mahmud and Hasan Maimandi, and Firdousī in a rage gave 20 thousand pieces to Ayāz 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, but the wily treasurer succeeded in turning his master’s anger upon Firdousī 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, Firdousī 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 Ghazni. 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 Ghazni 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 Ayāz, 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’s cloak. At the expiration of the 20 days Ayāz gave the paper to the sultan, who on opening it found the celebrated satire which is now always prefixed to copies of the Shāhnāma, 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. Firdousī directed his steps to Mazandaran, and took refuge with Kabus, prince of Jorjan, who at first received him with great favour, and promised him his continued protection and patronage; learning, however, the circumstances under which he had left Ghazni, 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. Firdousī next repaired to Bagdad, where he made the acquaintance of a merchant, who introduced him to the vizier of the caliph, al-Qadir, by presenting an Arabic poem which the poet had composed in his honour. The vizier gave Firdousī an apartment near himself, and related to the caliph the manner in which he had been treated at Ghazni. The caliph summoned him into his presence, and was so much pleased with a poem of a thousand couplets, which Firdousī composed in his honour, that he at once received him into favour. 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, Firdousī composed another poem of 9000 couplets on the theme borrowed from the Koran of the loves of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife—Yūsuf and Zuleikha (edited by H. Ethé, Oxford, 1902; complete metrical translation by Schlechta-Wssehrd, Vienna, 1889). 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. Firdousī, to avoid further troubles, departed for Ahwaz, a province of the Persian Irak, and dedicated his Yūsuf 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. Firdousī confided to him that he contemplated writing a bitter exposition of his shameful treatment at the hands of the sultan of Ghazni; 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 Firdousī’s friends had the desired effect; and Mahmud not only expressed his intention of offering full reparation to the poet, but put his enemy Maimandi to death. The change, however, came too late; Firdousī, now a broken and decrepit old man, had in the meanwhile returned to Tūs, 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 had 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 Abu’l Kasim Jurjani, chief sheikh of Tūs, refused to read the 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 Firdousī in paradise dressed in the sacred colour, 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. The legend goes that Mahmud had in the meanwhile despatched the promised hundred thousand pieces of gold to Firdousī, with a robe of honour and ample apologies for the past. But as the camels bearing the treasure reached one of the gates of the city, Firdousī’s funeral was leaving it by another. His daughter, to whom they brought the sultan’s present, refused to receive it; but his aged sister remembering his anxiety for the construction of the stone embankment for the river of Tūs, this work was completed in honour of the poet’s memory, and a large caravanserai built with the surplus.

Much of the traditional life, as given above, which is based upon that prefixed to the revised edition of the poem, undertaken by order of Baisingar Khan, grandson of Timur-i-Leng (Timur), is rejected by modern scholars (see T. Nöldeke, “Das iranische Nationalepos,” in W. Geiger’s Grundriss der iranischen Philologie, ii. pp. 150-158).

The Shāhnāma 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 therefore to believe that Firdousī adhered faithfully to these records of antiquity, and that the poem is a perfect storehouse of the genuine traditions of the country.

The entire poem (which only existed in MS. up to the beginning of the 19th century) was published (1831–1868) with a French translation in a magnificent folio edition, at the expense of the French government, by the learned and indefatigable Julius von Mohl. The size and number of the volumes, however, and their great expense, made them difficult of access, and Frau von Mohl published the French translation (1876–1878) with her illustrious husband’s critical notes and introduction in a more convenient and cheaper form. Other editions are by Turner Macan (Calcutta, 1829), J. A. Vullers and S. Landauer (unfinished; Leiden, 1877–1883). There is an English abridgment by J. Atkinson (London, 1832; reprinted 1886, 1892); there is a verse-translation, partly rhymed and partly unrhymed, by A. G. and E. Warner (1905 foll.), with an introduction containing an account of Firdousī and the Shāhnāma; the version by A. Rogers (1907) contains the greater part of the work. The episode of Sohrab and Rustam is well known to English readers from Matthew Arnold’s poem. The only complete translation is Il Libro dei Rei, by I. Pizzi (8 vols., Turin, 1886–1888), also the author of a history of Persian poetry.

See also E. G. Browne’s Literary History of Persia, i., ii. (1902–1906); T. Nöldeke (as above) for a full account of the Shāhnāma, editions, &c.; and H. Ethé, “Neupersische Litteratur,” in the same work.  (E. H. P.; X.) 

  1. A sort of cuirass.