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Chapter 2: Historical Background

The Revolution of 1905-11, which led to a constitutional monarchy in Iran, showed that the country had been influenced by capitalist economic progress and the democratization of politics in the West, and, as maintained by the ideologues of this revolution, Iran wanted to do away with stagnant feudalism and tyranny and to catch up with the modern world. Of course, by that time a home economic market had hardly become established in the country, as is described in The Economic History of Iran: 1800-1914:


    In spite of the dominance of feudalism, objective conditions furthered the development of an internal, common, national ... market. This process was accentuated by the impoverishment of the peasants, the ruin of the small producers, the development of market and monetary relationships in the country, and the specialization of various regions.  ...the dominance of subsistence economy in the villages, the slow separation of industry from agriculture, and the weakness of capitalist forms of production seriously impeded the formation of an internal market.


Nevertheless, other factors such as the implementation of a telegraph line between Tehran and a few of the other main cities in Iran, the printing of newspapers and books, and travel to the West, awakened a sense of nationhood and evoked a desire for civil liberties and political participation. Similarly, a change in literary discourse was taking place, and alongside other social developments new poetic styles arose.


Prior to the industrial and democratic revolutions in Europe, a renaissance occurred and the school of classicism spread, leading to an ideological “return” to the Greeks and Romans in order to bypass medieval obscurantism. We see the same return to the “golden age” movement in Iran starting in the eighteenth century, called by its exponents “bâzgasht” or the style of “return”. As was said by one of the anthologists of the era, “after a seven-hundred-year sleep” the returnists wanted to avoid the “decadent” Indian (Hendi) style and return to the golden age of Persian poetry which flourished from the ninth to the twelfth centuries in the Khorâsâni style and in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the ‘Erâqi style. Of course, in contrast to the situation in Europe, the movement of literary return was not linked to humanism and secularism, but in terms of national identity it was very similar to its European counterpart; two works of this era demonstrate this contrast and similarity: first, an epic in verse, which Fath-e ‘Ali Khân Sabâ composed, imitating the epic of Shâh-nâmeh, by Ferdowsi, and glorifying the wars of the Iranian prince, ‘Abbâs Mirzâ, against the Russian invaders; and second, Monsha'ât, by Yaghmâ containing letters to his son, imitating the style of Golestân, by Sa‘di, in rhymed prose, but highly innovative in that Yaghmâ, in a fashion parallel to that of the German movement of “the de-Latinization of the language,” does not use Arabic words in his Persian writing.


The modern style in Persian poetry did not appear prior to the Constitutional Revolution, and only some of its elements can be traced in the popularization of the form tasnif (song writing), which was more liberal in its metric and rhyme schemes and more down-to-earth in terms of language and subject matter. The period from 1911 to 1925, which led to the change of dynasty and a new round of dictatorship, was a relatively “open” era in which the first three terms of the legislature enjoyed relative freedom in its parliamentary discussion, and throughout the country different nationalist and leftist movements were developing. Although these movements created social insecurity and ethnic separatism, they provided a channel for social dialogue and the blossoming of contending schools of thought in literature and poetry. There were two divergent opinions about the path that the new style of poetry should take: first, that of the reformists, led by the well-known poet Bahâr (1886-1951), who published a literary magazine called, “Dâneshkadeh” (“The House of Knowledge“), and organized a literary circle by the same name in Tehran; and second, that of the radicals led by Taqi Raf‘at who was the editor of a literary magazine called, “Tajaddod” (“Modernization”), in the western province of Azarbayjân. The latter collaborated with a nationalistic movement in that part of the country. After the defeat of the separatists and the death of their leader, Khiâbâni, Raf‘at killed himself in his hiding place. 


As is quoted in their manifesto, Bahâr and his followers wanted to keep the prevalent form of Persian poetry intact, and accepted innovation only in diction and imagery:


    We do not want to indulge in an affair, before the process of evolution should command us to do so.


    This is why suitable to the present needs social formation and according to the environment which will evolve us, we have made the basis of our doctrine a gradual and slow modernization and we do not yet dare place this modernization as an adze at the historic building of our poet fathers and cultured ancestors. That is why for the time being we repair them and we will embark on laying more modern foundations next to that building which will go up its walls and along its mortars according to the process of evolutions.


In his odes (qasidehs), Bahâr uses new words such as airplane, car, parliament, embassy, and new concepts such as liberty, nationalism, and socialism, but he resolutely refutes any attempt to change the classical metrics, and that is why he calls himself a follower of the bâzgasht (return) style rather than a modernist. Contrary to Bahâr, the writers of Tajaddod talk of a “literary revolution” and attack his view as follows:


In these above-mentioned lines, you have confessed to a few things:


I.You are afraid, and you will live in the buildings of your fathers.

II.These buildings need to be repaired, and you will finish this job.

III.Near the buildings mentioned, you will lay down “more modern foundations”.


        No builder and no architect would draw, such a blueprint—this fantasy will lead you to a lack of success. You want to patch up the cracks of Persepolis with the concrete of the twentieth century... Can you imagine what a strange and amazing building you will create... This patched up building of yours and your fathers will produce a disordered and dilapidated corner, like the face of a leper... You will lose your ancient and noble, invaluable and essential edifice, like a king disguised on a suspicious journey will fail to prove his identity.


The modernists also wrote verses which employed irregular rhyme schemes and variable line lengths. Nevertheless, beyond their theory and manifesto, the output of Tajaddod was of poor quality, hastily done, and short-lived.


In addition to the dialog between Dâneshkadeh and Tajaddod, which was more symbolic than substantial, one can briefly classify the other new elements in Persian poetry over the period 1911-25. Such new elements opened the way for the innovation of Nimâ Yushij (1895-1960) at the end of that era. Following is a description of this evolution.


1. The song (tasnif) especially by ‘آref, ‘Eshqi, Lâhuti, and Bahâr was more liberal in terms of meter, and very popular among the populace, since it was usually used for political satire and buffoonery. As an example of this genre, here is the first stanza from a very well-known tasnif by Bahâr, entitled “The Bird of Daybreak”, sung by the great Iranian turn-of-the-century woman singer, Qamar, a sound recording of which is still extant:


Morning bird, start your lament.

Rekindle my heartache.

Destroy and overturn

This cage     with a burning sigh.

Oh, nightingale with your wings tied, come out from the corner of your cage;

Sing the freedom song of the human race.

Set this expanse of earth ablaze 

In one breath.


It is also interesting to note here, how the poet refers to nature as the Supreme Being, as the song continues:


The oppressor's oppression     the hunter's cruelty

Has thrown my nest     to the wind.

Oh, God! Oh, heavens! Oh, Nature!

Bring the dawn to our dark night.


2. Some of the classical forms of Persian poetry which have a refrain after each stanza and sound more liberal in their meter, such as mosammat, mostazâd and bahr-e tavil, became prevalent. For example, when the fourth parliament was inaugurated, Mirzâdeh ‘Eshqi wrote a mostazâd, whose opening lines read as follows:


This fourth parliament, I swear to God, was the shame of humanity

Did you see what happened?

Whatever they did was loss upon loss

Did you see what happened?


3. Poets simplified their language as is especially evident in the works of Iraj Mirzâ, particularly in the following poem entitled “Mother,” which is still committed to memory by most Iranian schoolchildren,


They say, when Mother had me,

She taught me how to take her breasts into my mouth.

At night by my cradle,

She sat watching and taught me how to sleep.

She put a smile on my lips,

Teaching the rosebud how to bloom.

She held my hand and took me step by step,

Until she had taught me how to walk.

One by one, two by two, 

She put words on my tongue and taught me how to talk.

So, my life is from her life, 

As long as I am and she is, I will love her.


4. A new poetic diction was created by Bahâr. Here are a few lines from a famous qasideh that Bahâr wrote against the first world war, entitled “The Owl of War”, in which he refers to tank and airplane:


In every land o'er which the winds of war may blow

It fills the throats and makes them shout.

The sound of running tank, like a fiery mountain, 

Deafens a thousand ears.

When the iron eagle spreads its wings

Town and country become his prey.


5. Romances written in the style of French and Russian romanticists as well as poems influenced by the English and French realists addressed social injustices. This is evident in ‘Eshqi's “Ideal or the Maryam Triptych,” whose three sections depict respectively the rape of Maryam by a dandy, her subsequent death, and her father's agony, which links this personal story to the events of the Constitutional Revolution. Other examples of romances include Nezâm Vafâ's, “The Ballad of Habib and Robâb”, which he wrote about the suicide of Habib Allâh Meikadeh, Nimâ Yushij's, “The Soldier's Family”, in which he emulates the Russian poet Lermantov, and Iraj Mirzâ's, “The Ballad of Zohreh and Manuchehr”, which is based on Shakespeare's “Venus and Adonis”.


In short, the rise of modern poetry was not the work of one person, but rather many authors contributed to it and, as Foucault says, a “unified principal of authorship” was in operation >>> Chapter 3-A




1.Z. Z. Abdullaev, Promyshlennost i zarozhdenie rabochego klassa Irana v kontse XIX-nachale XX vv., quoted in English translation in The Economic History of Iran: 1800-1914, ed. Charles Issawi (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1971) 44.


2.Yahyâ Aryanpur, Az Sabâ tâ Nimâ (Tehran: Ketâbhâ-ye Jibi, 1972) vol. 1.


3. Yahyâ Aryanpur, Az Sabâ tâ Nimâ. vol. 2, 446


4.  Yahyâ Aryanpur, Az Sabâ tâ Nimâ. vol. 2,. 447. Ellipses are in the original.

5. Yahyâ Aryanpur, Az Sabâ tâ Nimâ. vol. 2, 348.

6. Yahyâ Aryanpur, Az Sabâ tâ Nimâ. vol. 2, 362.

7. Yahyâ Aryanpur, Az Sabâ tâ Nimâ. vol. 2, 401.

8. Gozine-ye ash‘âr-e Bahâr, ed. Hasan Ahmadi Givi (Nashr-e Qatreh: Tehran, 1991) 26.