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.
Painted in colours of blue, red, yellow, and gold, with intertwining floral and vegetal motifs and palmettes, this opening is signed by master calligrapher and illuminator Rūzbihān of Shiraz. The first of three volumes containing the complete works of Saʿdī (d. 1292), this page shows the beginning of the compiler's preface. (MS. Fraser 73, fol. 2b)
Central Asia, possibly Bukhara, 1596. This illustration of a story from Jāmī's work Silsilat al-Dhahab or Chain of Gold, a title which refers to the spiritual lineage of the masters of the mystical Naqshbandi Sufi order to which the poet belonged, shows a Muslim youth and non-Muslim girl in the pose of an ideal loving couple. Many Persian poets came from cities where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked alongside each other. (MS. Elliott 337, fol. 78a)
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.
Manuscript of ʿAṭṭār's Intikhāb-i Ḥadīqah copied c. 1575. Here, a characteristic scene of royal festivity is depicted in an outdoor setting, suggesting the eternal springtime that was a favourite theme of Persian poets. In this case, a silken pavilion is set in an open landscape, beyond the confines of architectural space. The royal figure is attended by a pair of young pages, older courtiers, poets, musicians, a groomsman, and servants. (MS. Canonici Or. 122, fols. 4b)
The artist who illustrated this copy of Jāmī's late-15th-century work Subḥat al-Abrār or Rosary of the Pious may well have been inspired by a story made popular by its inclusion in the Conference of the Birds, written by ʿAṭṭār three centuries earlier. In that episode, an older man falls in love with a young Christian girl. He is so distracted by her that he suffers many humiliations and is made to look like a fool before he regains his senses. (MS. Ouseley Add. 23, fol. 72a)
Manuscript of the poetical works of Ḥāfiẓ copied 1538. Ḥāfiẓ was referred to as lisān al-ghayb, 'the Tongue of the Unseen.' This was in reference to his unrivalled use of language in evoking symbolism that worked on many levels. Ḥāfiẓ was a master of verse that was grounded in the realities of human love. (MS. Ouseley Add. 26, fol. 117r)
Manuscript copied 1565. This illustration from a book of romances of a boy and girl wrestling in an outdoor setting has all the trappings favoured by Persian book illustrators from the 14th to the 18th centuries. The young people play on a luxurious carpet beneath a silken canopy, a space separate from the attendants, who provide the pair with food and entertainment and who observe their charges with delight. (MS. Ouseley Add. 1, fol. 6a)
Manuscript of Gazurgāhī's Majālis al-ʿUshshāq or Assemblies of Lovers. The Majālis al-ʿUshshāq is a work that originated at the late-15th-century Timurid court of Sulṭān Ḥusayn in Herat, modern-day western Afghanistan. The text contains biographies and anecdotes about seventy-six mystics and lovers. (MS. Ouseley Add. 24, fol. 119a)
Manuscript of Navāʾī's Ḥayrat al-Abrār or Amazement of the Pious copied 1485. This image of the Sāsānian king Anūshīrvān (Khusraw I, r. 531-579) seated in a pavilion with an unnamed lady is an elegant example of the idealised loving couple, a major theme of Persian literature. (MS. Elliott 287, fol. 28r)
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.
Manuscript of the poetical works of 'Abd al-V'siʿ al-Jabalī, copied 1600-05. Persian princes were portrayed in poetry in their habitual pursuits of feasting and fighting. Equestrian sports were prominent and the royal hunt was a key element of the Persian concept of glamorous and divine kingship. Hunting was also used by poets as a metaphor for the search for love. (MS. Ouseley Add. 19, fols. 1b)
Manuscript of 'Aṣṣār Tabrīzī's Mihr u Mushtari or The Sun and Jupiter, copied c. 1550-60. Persian princes and heroes were expected to be skilled equestrians. Horsemanship was seen not only as a sign of kingship, but also as a necessary skill for popular royal pastimes such as hunting and polo, a game played in Iran since the first millennium BC. (MS. Ouseley Add. 21, fol. 134v)