Introducing the Garden in Persian Poetry, by Matilda Moffitt

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Introducing the Garden in Persian Poetry, by Matilda Moffitt

Introducing the Garden in Persian Poetry

by Matilda Moffitt

Chahār Bāgh school in Isfahan Province, by Mostafa Meraji on Unsplash, 2019.

In this tripart blog series, we will be focusing on the natural world in both classical and modern Persian poetry, but primarily in the work of Forugh Farrokhzad (1934-1967 AD). There is a recurring corpus of natural images in Persian poetry that have specific symbolic meanings. The garden offers a perfect vantage point from which to explore their origins and development, as well as the writer’s own perception of the world and our place within it.

The importance of the garden in Persian culture can be best attested to in the abundant nature imagery that flows through the pages of even the earliest new Persian poetry. At the heart of many early poems is the garden; its familiar setting and stock characters allowed poets ample opportunity to respond to one another and craft increasingly intricate metaphors. Drawing us into the world of the medieval court poet, evocations of the garden were entwined with royal splendour and tradition, as well as tales of love and spirituality.

Persian Literary History: Painting of a King being Entertained. McGill Library. Published on February 18, 2020

In the panegyric قصیده qaside, the poet would often evoke royal gardens and parks in its descriptive opening (نصیب nasib) in order to set the luxuriant scene for patron praise. Gardens were important centres of life for the upper circles of society, as nobles, scholars, mystics, and poets gathered here for wine-laden feasts, witty conversation, and poetry recitals. Among other things, the Persian qaside was deictic – it was dependent on the context in which it was recited. It was in the court poet’s own interest to refer to the settings and figures of the medieval royal court (مجلس majles). The patron, to whom he was economically dependent on, demanded ritual affirmation of the state institution.

The garden was not chosen simply for its intrinsic charm and beauty, but because it was part of the courtly and literary setting of the poet and their patron. As we will see in a verse of Ahmad Manuchehri Damghani (d. 1040 AD), the garden and its related imagery reflected and celebrated the poem’s socio-cultural reality:

شاخ گل شطرنج سیمین و عقیقین گشته است
وقت شبگیران به نطع سبزه بر شطرنج باز
گلبنان در بوستان چون خسروان آراسته
مرغکان چون شاعران در پیش این یازان فراز

Shākh-e gol shatranj-e simin-o aqiqin gashte ast
Vaqt-e shabgirān be natʻ-e sabze bar shatranj bāz
Golbonān dar bustān chun khosrovān ārāste
Morghakān chun shāʻerān dar pish-e in yāzān farāz

‘The rose branch has become a chess game of silver and carnelian
The evening, a chess player upon greenery’s chess mat
The rose bushes adorned in the garden like kings
The little birds like poets demanding benefit before them’

Photo by Javier Grixo on Unsplash, 2017.

In this clever poem, the garden is described as a chess board (شطرنج shatranj) with the same hierarchical structure, alliances, and conflicts of the court menagerie. The roses (گلِ سرخ gol-e sorkh) on the rose branch are pieces in the allegorical chess game of the court, the splendour and refinement of which is represented by the precious materials, silver and carnelian. Literary patronage and the social order is also referred to by the birds (مرغکان morghakān), whose lovely song is paralleled with the recital of poetry to the nobility at court.

Ghazal writers of the 13th and 14th centuries were also enamoured with the garden, adding layers of interpretation with mystical references, and expanding the set metaphors of qaside poets. The spring garden continued to act as a microcosm of the courtly majles: the flowers and plants mimicked the patron, the bird the poet, and the lawn the assembly room. However, it became more and more common for the earthly and sensual aspects of the garden to give way to the more abstract and mystical as new contexts began to flourish alongside the old (William Hanaway).

With the spread of Sufism, the garden began to take on a mystical dimension. From this stage in poetic development, it would be expected that the listener could understand the rose as both the patron and the divine beloved. Additionally, the nightingale could be interpreted as the poet themselves and the mystic on the path to oneness with God. In ghazals such as Rumi, we can see reflected the mystics’ view that God manifests himself in his creation (the garden) and therefore that nature is the mirror of divine beauty. The mystic strives to be a witness (شاهد shāhed) to this divine beauty on his spiritual quest, as illustrated by this beyt where the poet expresses desire for the “face” and “lips” of the divine beloved:

بِنمای رُخ که باغ و گلستانم آرزوست
بُگشای لب که قندِ فراوانم آرزوست

Benmāy rokh ke bāgh-o golestān-am ārezu-st
Bogshāy lab ke qand-e farāvān-am ārezu-st

‘Show thy face, for I desire the orchard and the rose garden;
Open thy lips, for I desire sugar in plenty’

Image by Alirad Zare on Unsplash, 2020.

By the time free verse in contemporary poetry (شعرِ نو she’r-e now) was introduced with the work of Nima Yushij (1895-1960 AD), the garden no longer had the same socio-cultural uses, yet it had been immortalised in the poetic tradition. Whilst it might be easy to view iconoclastic poets such as Forugh Farrokhzad in a poetic vacuum, it is important to locate her within the poetic tradition to both acknowledge the organic development of poetic creation, as well as better appreciate her contribution to the genre. Like many of her predecessors, Farrokhzad saw the natural world as a model of life and a microcosm of human society that deserves the poet’s close attention. She said in an interview:

“As much as you can, look and live and understand the rhythm of this life. If you even look at the leaves of the trees, you will see that they flutter in the breeze with a distinct rhythm. The wings of birds are like this, too… Have you ever noticed the rings in the stump of a tree, with what harmony and calculated form they are arranged alongside each other?”

Due to the popularity of the garden setting for the lovers of ghazals and romance epics, it is unsurprising that Farrokhzad’s love poetry is similarly imbued with its imagery. Whilst descriptions of aristocratic walled gardens fell away with the encroachment of time and socio-cultural shifts, the appearance of a contemporary family courtyard (حیاط hayāt) did not signal a complete break in the tradition. On the contrary, poets such as Farrokhzad did what had been done time and time again: they pushed literary boundaries with the incorporation of new contexts and concerns.

In the next part of the series, we will look in closer detail at Farrokhzad’s depictions and uses of the natural world by exploring the language of flowers in her poetry.

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