Setting the scene

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

The familiar quatrain above, made famous by Edward Fitzgerald, is a paraphrase of a number of quatrains by the Sage (Ḥakīm) 'Umar Khayyām (1048-1131). Khayyām, a Renaissance Humanist before the advent of the term, was better known in Iran as an astronomer and philosopher than as a poet, but, like many polymaths of his type, penned verse in his spare time.

Fitzgerald's paraphrase captures the essence of the idealised romantic setting of Persian poetry which is reflected in a number of the miniature paintings in this exhibition. The typical motifs are the bucolic setting, the food, the music, the verse, and the wine, which, as a symbol for the spiritual wine poured out by the Sāqī (cupbearer) from the flask of wisdom, is lawful in the 'Madhhab-i 'Āshiqān' or Religion of the Lovers. This scene is often a prelude to the act of the contemplation of pure theophanic matter - human or natural beauty as a mirror which manifests the beauty of the divine - leading to direct witness of the divine. 

 

Persian poetry 

Legend has it that the first to compose Persian poetry was Bahrām V, the fourteenth king of the Sāsānid dynasty, known as Bahrām Gūr (r. 421-438). However, he preceded the Muslim-Arab conquests of Iran by two hundred years, and the advent of 'New' Persian by nearly four hundred years. Some echoes of Persian verse from the 8th century remain, but it was not until the rise of the Sāmānids, a Persianate dynasty who ruled Central Asia from 875-999, that Persian poetry really began to come to fruition with their patronage of poets such as Rūdakī and Daqīqī. For a thousand years, the Persian classical poetic tradition flourished, and from its beginnings in Bukhārā and Samarqand became part of the language of refined society in all of Central Asia, Greater Persia, Iraq, Anatolia, and Northern India.

Poetry, the highest achievement of Persian literature, has been likened to setting jewels in wrought gold, or, as one of the words used in Persian to mean poetry, naẓm, signifies, stringing the pearls of meaning on the thread of rhyme. Each individual verse can almost stand alone as a work of art in itself. Being highly symbolic and open to many different interpretations, the depth and effect of Persian poetry can be difficult to convey in translation. However, the dominant theme of many of the poets, the Philosophy of Love, transcends the boundaries of language, culture, and religion.

 

Court poetry 

The legendary opulence of the courts of the pre-Islamic Persian kings was emulated to a greater or lesser degree by many later local rulers of the Islamic world, and a number of elements were adopted even by the Islamic Caliphs themselves. This included the patronage of poets who would, by serving the ruler, glorifying his deeds, and praising his character and morals, lend legitimacy to his reign.

The number of poets attached to a particular court could be substantial; Sulṭān Maḥmūd of Ghaznah, the splendour of whose court was quite breathtaking, reputedly had four hundred poets in his entourage. However, only very few poets would be taken as confidants by the ruler and become his nadīms or close companions. The equivalent to the post of poet laureate may also have originated with Sulṭān Maḥmūd: it carried with it a stipend as well as the power to veto which poets were allowed to attach themselves to the court.

Regal patrons were expected to reward poets richly for laudatory verse or for other works dedicated to them. The poets could expect money, acclaim, a robe of honour, and even for their mouths to be stuffed full of precious jewels in return for their jewel-like verses.

 

Love and Devotion exhibition poster
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