In the second part of this blog series on natural imagery in Persian poetry, we will look at a corpus of recurring natural images, a language of nature, in the work of Forugh Farrokhzād. Having previously familiarised ourselves with depictions of the garden in Persian poetry and its importance in the literary tradition, now we can focus our attention on the natural images in Forugh Farrokhzād’s poetry. In doing so, the centrality of nature to the poetic persona’s world vision and self-perception will be demonstrated, as will the poet’s borrowing from and innovation of the classical model. By determining what it is the poet conceives of when she evokes “nature”, we will lay the foundation for an in-depth interpretation of how these images are used in the final part of the series.
The centrality of plants and flowers in Farrokhzād’s poetry is made abundantly clear from the variety of flora to consistently appear in her work, in particular the rose (گل gol or گلِ سرخ gol-e sorkh), the acacia blossom (خوشه های اقاقی khūshe-hā-ye aqāqi), the violet (بنفشه banafshe), the tulip (لاله lāle), the poppy (شقایق shaqāyeq) and jasmine (یاس yās).
As in the classical tradition, flowers in Farrokhzād’s poetry are often used to signify seasonal changes, the garden, and the arrival of the persona’s beloved and the lover’s union with them. For instance, summertime is often correlated with the blooming of flowers and the abundance of fruit that follows – in ‘Those Days’ alleys on “lush, happy days” are “dizzy with acacia perfume” and the skies are studded with “cherry-heavy branches.” Yet, there is an intimacy between the female persona and flora that distinguishes the poet’s work from previous models. Whether it is a lapful of flowers that falls into her hair in ‘Bathing’, a red rose that grows in her womb in ‘Red Rose’, or dahlia petals that she places upon her nails in ‘Reborn’, the distinction between flower and the female body is often blurred.
Whilst combining subjects on formal and chromatic grounds is a predominant feature of early New Persian poetry, it is not as formalised in Farrokhzād’s poetry, and typical flower symbolism is not always adhered to. Although sexual encounters or the union of partners are often described using floral imagery in classical poetry, primarily because they bear seed, have exuberant colour, and bloom temporarily, the more controversial aspect of Farrokhzād’s poetry is that they are often evoked by a distinctly female narrator who speaks explicitly of her lived experience. In ‘Red Rose’ the persona’s night of passion and resultant pregnancy is expressed with the repeated image of a red rose, representing sensual pleasure, fertility and judgement.
او مرا برد به باغ گل سرخ
و به گیسوهای مضطربم در تاریکی گل سرخی زد
روی برگ گل سرخی با من خوابید
U marā bord be bāgh-e gol-e sorkh
Va be gisu-hā-ye moztareb-am dar tāriki gol-e sorkhi zad
Ru-ye barg-e gol-e sorkhi bā man khābid
‘He took me to the garden of red roses
and in the darkness he placed a red rose
in my trembling hair
Finally, he slept with me on the petal of a red rose.’
In this poem, the image of a red rose is surprising and purposefully unsettling due to its conventional association with the Beloved in the classical tradition. The courtly ideal of unattainable love that is found in the earliest New Persian poetry can perhaps be best understood through the characters of the rose and the nightingale, the iconic symbols of beloved and lover. Whilst the nightingale sings the lover’s bitter-sweet lament and pines after the rose, the object of its desire, the rose in turn takes on the qualities of an irresistible, and often mocking, beloved. Since the rose could be easily associated with the pleasure and pain of love – the rose and its thorns serving as a parable for these entwined senses – it was a fitting choice for the poet, who often used the pairing to illustrate the poet’s fraught, as well as economically vital, relationship with their patron. As a result of this, this conventional pairing of lover and beloved is often homoerotic in early poetry, and we often see the poet attributing distinctly male features to the beloved.
However, in Farrokhzād’s poetry there often appears a distinctly female character who takes on the traditionally masculine role of the lover. In ‘Red Rose’, the conventional relationship is disrupted and developed by introducing a dimension of the female experience: pregnancy.
آه، من آبستن هستم، آبستن، آبستن
زیر قلبم و در اعماق کمرگاهم، اکنون
گل سرخی دارد میروید
Āh, man ābestan hastam, ābestan, ābestan
Zir-e qalb-am va dar a’māq-e kamargāh-am, aknun
Gol-e sorkhi dārad mi-ruyad
‘Ah, I am pregnant, pregnant, pregnant.
beneath my heart, in the deep curve of my back, now
a red rose is growing’
The pain or “thorns” of love was classically depicted in scenes of separation or jealousy, whereas here the burden is carried by a lone female partner, whose pregnancy is compared metaphorically to a growing red rose. The colour red, often linked chromatically with the beloved’s lips or cheeks in classical imagery, is instead linked with the persona’s womb and “a flag on Resurrection Day”. It is the unsettling closeness of these images that alerts us to the speaker’s complex notions of new motherhood.
Personification of the elements was an established tradition in medieval Persian poetry and elemental imagery was commonly used to symbolise various aspects of the human experience. The four elements are not simply present in Farrokhzād’s work, they are central characters in her poetic oeuvre and play a pivotal role in how the persona conceptualises herself and society. As the poet writes in ‘Only Voice Remains’, “the four elements alone rule me”, and this is demonstrated by descriptions of these throughout her collections. Fire’s flames blaze in the poet’s hands and burn up her body in sexual encounters, she has “never been separate from the earth” and will be reborn in its embrace, the wind blows lovers away and empties flowers on her hair, and water pulls her into a “sinful spring”.
Farrokhzād’s collections of poetry are rained upon by stars that set the pages ablaze, shrouded in moonlight on dark nights, cheered and warmed by the sun, and given space to roam in the expanse of the sky. These figures (ستاره setāre, ماه māh, آفتاب āftāb and آسمان āsmān) are neither totally beneficent nor benign: at times “cardboard stars” reign in the skies; the red moon shines down on the corpse of night’s victim; the sickly garden swells under the sun’s intense rays; and the sky is cut off by the window or clouded over. At times the persona is aglow with the light given off by the sun and moon, she comes alive under their influence, at other times she is oppressed by the heat, afflicted by their absence or ‘death’ or powerless to their turnings in the sky. A consistent function is their reflection of how the persona perceives the world around her, as well as her emotional and mental state. The speaker’s relationships with these celestial figures are complex and changing; her sense of physical distance from their heights is often expressed, and her desire for closer intimacy is at times confounded by the four-sided limits of the window or superseded by her rootedness in the earth.
As in classical Persian poetry, the moon is often closely associated with the beloved in Farrokhzād’s poetry. In ‘We Must Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season’, the persona muses whether life is limited to the annihilation of the lover in the beloved’s eyes – a process that is further illuminated by the persona’s merging with “the impression of the moon” (the whites of the eye) and “the insight of darkness” (the pupil). In the poem “In the Dark” the speaker pines for the return of the beloved, her suffering entwined with the image of milk falling through her hands and a sorrowful moon:
ترا صدا کردم
ترا صدا کردم
تمام هستی من
چو یک پیاله شیر
میان دستم بود
Torā sedā kardam
Torā sedā kardam
Tamām-e hastī-ye man
Cho yek piyāle-ye shir
Miān-e dastam bud
‘I called you
I called you
My entire existence
was like a cup of milk
between my hands.’
The moon’s close association with the suffering of love in the classical tradition originates from the legend that moonlight damages cotton. Although the beloved’s features are not explicitly referenced, the cup of milk held between the persona’s hands are not only a depiction of their transient “entire existence”, but also the round face of the beloved that slips from the lover’s fingers. The milk’s encirclement between cupped hands and its white colour is reminiscent of the moon, which was the classic image for the beloved’s face in early Persian poetry.
In much the same way as the earth, the sun is often conceived of as a symbol of vitality, inextricably connected with not only the sensations of the individual’s body, but the balance of wider society. The death of the sun in Farrokhzād’s poems is repeated on multiple occasions and implicates wider sterility and degeneration. In “I Feel Sorry for the Garden” the garden acts as a microcosm of the family and society that dies when its heart becomes “swollen under the sun”. The sun’s force is neither malevolent nor kind, simply, its state reflects the ‘elemental’ balance of the speaker and the society they live in. Sometimes the sun is connected to intimacy with the beloved, as in “The Sun Shines” when the sun’s beneficence is dependent on the partner’s presence:
تو می دمی و آفتاب می شود
To mi-dami-yo āftāb mi-shavad
‘You breathe, and the sun shines’
In “Window”, the sun, similarly to the role of the sky in “Captive”, is envisioned as being in a relationship with the speaker, one that provides a mixed sense of hope and despair with its promise of “the sensation of being alive” in a life that feels deathlike and sterile. After describing the ways in which the speaker feels her environment is artificial and false (“I come from the land of dolls,/from beneath the shadows of paper trees”), and her mind “brimming with the terrified cry of a butterfly that they crucified…with a pin”, the speaker exclaims at the very end:
حرفی به من بزن
من در پناه پنجره ام
با آفتاب رابطه دارم
Harfi be man bezan
Man dar panāh-e panjere-am
Bā āftāb rābete dāram
‘Say something to me
I am in the shelter of the window
I am connected with the sun’
Contrary to the artifice of a world she feels emotionally and physically violated by, the “shelter” or “refuge” (پناه panāh) of the window offers the speaker transcendence. Not only is she given the freedom to view the sky and the garden, but the sun’s heat and light can be felt on her body. In focusing upon this sensation, the speaker is able to affirm her existence.
Farrokhzād’s language of nature is expansive and inconstant. It metamorphosises with the development of the persona, as well as the writer’s engagement with the literary tradition and society. It is through these figures of the natural world that we can traverse the writer’s poetic realm and understand how it ties into and deviates from those of her predecessors. A knowledge of classical literary convention can help the reader begin to understand the depth and playfulness of this language.
This brief overview of natural imagery in Farrokhzād’s work will hopefully have given you a sense of its integral role in the poet’s work. Next time, we will consider more carefully how these images were used by the writer.
– Matilda Moffitt