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Chapter 4-A


Nature Poetry


1. The Concept of Nature in Retrospect

Humankind lives within nature, but our concept of nature changes in time and space. In the hymns of Gâthâ, which is considered to be the earliest text in Avestic, one of the Iranian languages, we see divinity, man, and nature, not as three separable, abstract categories, but rather in a fashion close to Indian and Greek polytheism, interwoven and inseparable. For example, the immortal Amshâspandâns each represent one of the elements in nature, including Ahurâ Mazdâ who represents wisdom in man. Similarly, Mithrâ, the god of contracts, is identified with the sun; fire is called “son of Ahurâ Mazdâ”; and the beautiful آnahitâ, symbolizes the running waters. In a hymn to earth included in Vendidâd, the last part of Avesta, we see the celebration of mother nature and agriculture:


Who satisfies the earth with the greatest satisfaction? It is that person, O Zarathushtra, who sows the most corn, pastures, and fruit-bearing trees. It is he who irrigates the dry land, and drains off the marsh. (23)


For indeed that plot of ground is not satisfied which lies long uncultivated, which should be cultivated by a plowman, which desires that which is good from the woman of the house. It is like a beautiful woman who long goes childless, she lacks what is good from the male. (24)


He who works the earth, O Zarathustra, with left arm, with right arm and left, left brings forth her increase like a loving husband who, lying on the couch which is spread out for him, brings forth a son, an increase, for his beloved wife. (25)


In another document, the poem of Darakht-e آsurik, written in Middle Persian probably a few centuries before Islam, a goat and a palm tree in a verbal contest boast about their relative usefulness for human beings. In the stories of Kalileh va Demneh, which was originally translated from Sanskrit into Middle Persian before Islam, talking animals create a society based on hierarchical feudalism.

By the establishment of the Sasânis three centuries before Islam, Zoroastrianism gradually distanced itself from polytheism and eventually also from dualism, to become monistic (but not monotheistic) in the cult of Zarvân, thus preparing the ground for the advent of Islam. Contrary to Zoroastrianism, Islam emerged as a monotheistic religion in which the boundaries of God, man, and the elements of nature are clearly distinguished and the deification of animals, trees, and people is considered idolatry. Nevertheless, not only did the natural religion of the people in Iranian towns and villages remain intact, but at a higher level it also influenced theology. For example, advocates of tashbih or anthropomorphism believed that some of God's attributes quoted in the Quran, such as “hand”, “chair”, and “eye” were not metaphoric. In the Quran itself, the Prophet's relationship with nature in the early verses of the Meccan period is very different from the Medinan period: in the former, oaths by salt, the dawn, running horses, and the natural scenery of the desert are in the forefront, whereas in the latter, Muhammad focuses on social relations:


By the sun and its noonday brightness!

And the moon when it follows him!

And the day when it displays him!

And the night when it covers him!

And the heaven and what built it!

And the earth and what spread it!

And the soul and what fashioned it, and taught it its sin and its piety! (Al-Shams 1-8)


By the snorting chargers!

And those who strike fire with their hoofs!

And those who make incursions in the morning, 

And raise up dust therein,

And cleave through a host therein! (Al-‘آdiyât 1-5)


In a discussion of the development of feelings for nature in Greek and Roman polytheism and monotheistic Judeo-Christianity, Alfred Biese, describes a pattern similar to that found in the East:


Classic mythology created a world of its own, dimly veiled by the visible one; every phase of Nature shewed the presence or action of deities with whom man had intimate relations; every form of life, animated by them, held something familiar to him, even sacred—his landscape was absorbed by the gods.

To Judaism and Christianity, Nature was a fallen angel, separated as far as possible from her God. They only recognized one world—that of spirit; and one sphere of the spiritual, religion—the relation between God and man. Material things were a delusion of Satan's; the heaven on which their eyes were fixed was a very distant one. 


Biese believes that the Germanic peoples restored some of the lost elements of polytheism to Western culture:


We see then that the inborn German feeling for Nature, conditioned by climate and landscape, and pronounced in his mythology, found both an obstacle and a support in Christianity—an obstacle in its transcendentalism, and a support in its inwardness.


After the Renaissance, the humanistic and naturalistic tendencies grew, and due to the progress of the natural sciences and secularism, nature was studied with precision and in detail, and natural scenery in literature and art came to the forefront. The deist Jean Jacques Rousseau “was the first one who saw the Alps beautiful”, and the pantheistic Goethe saw the elements of nature as the manifestation of divinity. By the fifteenth century in the Netherlands, the Landscapist School came to being which drew nature in full detail. Up to that time, natural scenes occupied the background, whereas in landscape painting, nature comes to the foreground. In poetry, out of spring songs, pastorals, and idyllics, a new style of nature poetry springs up in which the poet finds a point of reference between his subjective feelings and the objective nature. 


In Iran, landscape painting began with Rezâ ‘Abbâsi in late 16th and early 17th centuries during the reign of Shah Abbas I. It was a time of economic expansion and artistic revivalism in which Rezâ ‘Abbâsi,


towers over all others as the most innovative figure of the age. The son of Ali Asghar, an artist at the court of Shah Isma‘il II, Riza was born about 1565 and joined Shah Abbas's atelier around 1587.


Before that, painting in Iran due to religious prohibition was mostly decorative, and even after the invasion of Mongols, through the influence of the Chinese art throughout the Mongol empire, the style of miniature emerged in Iran, and it did not go beyond the level of decoration of books such as the Shâhnâmeh of Ferdowsi or The Khamseh of Nezâmi. Only at the end of the reign of the Teymuris and the emergence of the Safavis, artists began to pay attention to the reality beyond the sterotyped models, and in the paintings of Behzâd, the portraits of the people have resemblance to that of the real ones. Rezâ ‘Abbâsi released painting from the confines of miniature, and as can be seen in some of his pieces such as “The Sitting Young”, “The Scribe” and “A Man attacked by a Bear”, painters are inspired by nature and people. Sheila R. Canby writes,


By the mid 1590's, he had forged a new style, more dynamic and expressive than that of the Qazvin atelier. ‘A Man attacked by a Bear', which has two inscriptions to Bihzad but which is attributed here to Riza, embodies many of the qualities of Riza's early drawings. First, he has chosen to depict a moment of high drama and has not shied away from showing the man's anxiety, as he furrows his brow and glares at the mauling bear. To heighten the sense of movement, Riza has employed a line of varying thickness, which some scholars believe he, and not Sadiqi Beg, introduced to Persian draughtsmanship.


After Rezâ ‘Abbâsi, perspective and shading through which a three-dimensional painting becomes possible, began to spread in the works of the artists who were influenced by the Europeans and were called farangi kâr (European Stylist):


By the late 1620's the trickle of European visitors to the court of Isfahan had increased to a steady flow, introducing the Iranian public to European styles of art, dress and behavior, and although Riza never attempted to borrow the European artists' techniques of shading or perspective, he seems to have been amused by the appearance and actions of the foreigners. Ironically, for some of Riza's followers European art proved irresistible and its introduction ultimately changed the course of Persian painting >>> Chapter 4-B