Obrázky stránek

The court of Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznah was the seat of the muses.

He was one of the most accomplished sovereigns that ever sat on an Asiatic throne, and his own taste prompted him to grant an extensive patronage to men of literature. Poetry and history were his favorite pursuits, and it was, perhaps, a design of combining both in one immortal work, that first made him plan the task which Ferdusi executed. His library was furnished with the most authentic annals of the Persian empire, and among them was a complete history compiled in the reign and by the order of Yezdejerd, the last of the Sassanian dynasty, by the most judicious historians in Persia. This precious manuscript narrowly escaped destruction, when it was, after the conquest of the kingdom, presented as a valuable part of the plunder to the Khalif Omar, the well-known destroyer of the Alexandrian library. He ordered a translation to be made into the Arabic language, and when his commands were obeyed, severely criticized the book for treating of those worldly affairs that were forbidden by the prophet. Happily he did not proceed to wreak his vengeance on the idle tale, but left it to its chance amongst the spoil, when it fell into the hands of a private soldier. Its history for some centuries is obscure, but it at length came into the possession of Mahmúd, who treated the refugee, who presented it to him, with great magnificence. It seems that the Sultan, in the midst of his literary treasures, and the poet at his private studies, had, unknown to each other, planned the execution of a mighty work on the history of Persia under its ancient kings; but each wanted that which was possessed by the other; Mahmud had in abundance the materials, but no hand able to rear the structure, while the poet, conscious of his ability to perform the task which he had schemed, was deterred by the scantiness of his stores. In the ardour of genius, he had, however, determined to hazard the attempt with the aid of a friend's library; and his essay on the wars between the usurper Zohak and Feridun, the rightful heir of the throne, introduced him first to the notice of the governor of the province, and through his influence to that of the Sultan himself. As the fame of the young man so exactly accorded with the idea formed of the qualifications necessary to complete the proposed history of the Persian kings, he ordered his attendance at court.

We are told that in a dream, the imagination of Ferdusi had pictured to him a young monarch seated on a throne, illuminating the universe, and particularly smiling on himself ; and that a friend to whom the dream was communicated, interpreted it to mean, that he had thus seen Mahmud, the encourager of learning. Anxious at his approaching competition with all the poets that thronged the royal presence, but encouraged by his

friends, and especially by his dream, which in that age and country it would have been madness to neglect, the poet at length obeyed the repeated summons. He was well received, and even won over (a rare instance of the candour of courtiers) three of the royal poets, who, jealous of a rival, had resolved to exclude him from their society. His dream was verified. The triumph of Ferdusi was complete. When he presented a part of his poem to the king, accompanying the present with the recital of some complimentary verses, Mahmud, in the face of his whole court, turned to the poet, and said, " It is you that have shed a lustre on the court of Ghaznah.” The royal bards themselves acknowledged that he was the only man capable of writing the projected Sháh-námeh, and this favorite scheme he was accordingly commanded to fulfil. He was promised a golden dinar from the treasury for every line, which would amount to a sum sufficient almost to satisfy the poets of our days. To gratify his thirst for reputation, which was much more ardent than his desire for wealth, he was honored with the united praise of all who hoped for favour in the eyes of their sovereign, and by eulogies and invitations from all the surrounding courts. The intrigues, however, of his secret enemies, for none dared openly avow himself as such, were directed to an attempt to make Ferdusi be considered as the participator in the intended insult, which they said was offered to Mahmúd, by the expressed wish of the neighbouring princes, to draw the poet from his patronage. But while the great work was in progress, which none but himself could complete, the cabals of the envious had no effect on the royal mind. At length the important day arrived, and so rightly did his countrymen judge that the composition of the Shah-námeh would form an era in their literary history, that they have perpetuated the memory of the very day of its completion. On the 25th day of the month Isfendarmuz, which answers to our February, and in the three hundred and seventyfourth year of the Hegirah, (A.D.985,) when the author had reached the age of seventy years, the great work was finished. The poet brought it to the monarch, who, delighted at the accomplishment of his wishes, ordered the immediate payment of a golden dinar for each of its one hundred and twenty thousand lines; and there are a set of panegyrical verses, which, it is said, the poet, in answer, poured forth at the moment in a tide of grateful song,

The sunshine of royal favour is always sooner or later overclouded, and Ferdusi was destined to experience the lot of all who put their trust in princes. The machinations of his enemies, which Mahmúd had so long rendered vain, were at length successful. The visier Hussein Meimendi, who was charged to

transmit the promised bounty to the poet, sent it in silver dinars
instead of gold, thus diminishing the value of the present in
proportion to the relative value of the two metals. This seems
to have been contrived, in order to rouse the indignation of the
injured poet, in the hope, that they might take advantage of his
indiscretion, and thus find in himself an ally in their schemes to
displace him from the monarch's confidence. The plot succeeded,
for the messenger who was despatched with the money, on his
return, reported that he had found Ferdusi in the bath, who,
on discovering that the present was sent in coin of less value
than had been stipulated, and supposing that none but the
Sultan could have ordered the change, had given a third of the
whole sum to the keeper of the bath, a third to an attendant,
and a third to the messenger himself; exclaiming, “ I wrote not
for such a remuneration, but for immortal fame." The first re-
port of this circumstance that reached the King, exasperated
him against the minister who had dared to disobey his com-
mands. The Visier, perceiving his danger, and the certainty that
if he could not irritate Mahmud against the poet, that his own
disgrace was inevitable, artfully insinuated, that nothing could
excuse the disrespect that Ferdusi had shewn on the receipt of
the royal bounty ; that he ought to have received the slightest
mark of his favour with humility; and that nothing but an in-
tention personally to insult his sovereign could explain his con-
duct. Still the calumnies of the Visier would have been in-
sufficient to ruin Ferdusi’s fortunes, had he not called in as an
auxiliary the religious bigotry, which, ever since the days of the
prophet, has raged so virulently in the Mahometan world.
Mahmúd was a furious Sunnite or stickler for the legitimacy
of the three first Khalifs; Ferdusi was of the sect of Ali, the
lieutenant and son in law of Mahomet. The Visier insisted
that the sectarian poet had again shewn his rancorous hostility
to the faith of the Sultan, as he had before taken a sly oppor-
tunity of doing, in the following lines of the Shah-námeh, which
he quoted in the hope of condemning the poet from his own
6 Born in the

pure faith, in that faith I'll die;
True to the Prophet, and his son am I.
Choose thou, Oh man! the prophet for thy guide,
And seek in heav'n, a seat by Ali's side;
If any curse thee, mine be all the blame,
Our fate is equal, for our faith's the same.”

The favour that Ferdusi had found in his sight, had withstood all former attacks, but this was irresistible. His heresy was before known, and it now appeared in its most odious colours,

defiling the very pages that were written by the king's command. His last offence of refusing the present, was immediately deduced in some way or other from his religious obstinacy, and from that instant he was disgraced. He retired from Ghaznah, where he would dread more unequivocal tokens of the displeasure of an Asiatic despot, and wandered from court to court ; but the princes, who would have been proud of the presence of such a man, had they dared to patronize him, feared that the vengeance of the mighty Sultan would seek both the poet and all who should countenance him. At length he retired to his native place, where, after spending his last days in obscurity, he died at an advanced age unnoticed by Mahmud ; but while his friends were in the act of accompanying bis body to the grave, they were met by a messenger, the bearer of the monarch's tardy acknowledgement of his own injustice. He had at last forwarded the stipulated reward for the composition of the Shah-nameh in golden coin, but the only daughter of the poet, to whom it was offered, inheriting the proud spirit of her father, indignantly rejected it, declaring that she would not accept what had been refused to him. The money was therefore laid out on the erection of some public buildings at Tous, which remained for many ages the monuments of Ferdusi's ill fate, and the fickleness of his patron's favour.

The Shah-námeh is the oldest poem of the best period of Persian literature, and as the principal national work, has been a frequent subject of partial notice both with philologists and travellers. In two instances, a considerable portion of Ferdusi has been presented to the English reader; first by Mr.Champion, who, many years ago, published the first part of an intended translation which was never completed ; and in the year 1814, by Mr. Atkinson, who printed at Calcutta the episode of Sohrab in the original, with an English metrical version. The conductors of the press at Fort William undertook to print the whole work under the superintendence of one of the professors, from a copy

that had been carefully collated with twenty-seven manuscripts This edition would have occupied eight folio volumes of text alone, but the first volume dated 1811 is the only one that has appeared. It has the same want of typographical beauty, which is to be lamented in all East Indian books, but if completed, it would have the merit of rescuing Ferdusi from the hands of inaccurate scribes, who have been employed in disfiguring him ever since his first appearance. Those who are only acquainted with the various readings of Greek and Latin manus scripts, will be able to form but a very faint idea of the perpetual confusion arising from this source in the Persian and Arabic authors. For in these languages, a great many letters are only distinguishable by the different position and number of diacritical points, which are often entirely omitted by transcribers.

The work of Ferdusi, says Sir William Jones, remains entire, a glorious monument of Eastern genius and learning, which, if ever it should be generally understood in its original language, will contest the merit of invention with Homer himself, whatever be thought of its subject or the arrangement of its incidents. It is not to be maintained, adds the same distinguished writer in another place, that the Persian poet is the equal of the Greek, but there certainly is a very strong resemblance between the works of these extraordinary men. Both sought their images in nature herself, and did not catch them by reflection, by painting like modern poets the likeness of a likeness; and each possessed in the highest degree that fruitful invention, that creative genius, which is the soul of poetry.

The Shah-námeh opens with an address to the Deity. But to feel the full force of the noble invocations at the head of this and other oriental poems, we must forget, if possible, that they share this species of dedication with the dullest prose works, as well as with the most immoral poetry; and that such is the constant habit of making these appeals on beginning to write a book among the eastern nations, that they seem quite blind to its utter unsuitableness in the one case, and to its blasphemous mockery in the other. The poet then proceeds to the history of Persia, which he deduces from the earliest period to its subjugation by the Arabs. During this period, the Persian throne was occupied by four dynasties, the Pishdadian, Caianian, Ashcanian, and Sassanian. Of the history of the third, Ferdusi found so few materials, that he has entirely omitted any account of its kings, having, perhaps, an additional motive in the facts, that the Ashcanians were not native sovereigns, but Parthian intruders. The first dynasty ruled during the fabulous age of Persian history; and, though some attempts have been made to reconcile their wild chronicles to the events of authentic tradition, yet they have been so unsuccessful, that we are justified in considering this period as obscure as that which preceded the Trojan war. The darker ages are however very favorable to poetry. The imagination of a poet is never so vigorous as when it is allowed to indulge in its own dreams, and his most successful attempts have accordingly been those in which he has had a license to fill up, at his own pleasure, a mere outline furnished by some traditional story. The very early history of Persia would have given Ferdusi a favorable opportunity of this kind, had it not been pre-occupied by the old writers, from whom he drew his materials, and who had added to the sketches which had reached them, fables invented without judgement by themselves, and implicitly followed by the poet. For instance, Tahmuras, the third monarch of the Pishdadian family, had acquired, from his continued successes over the bar

[ocr errors]
« PředchozíPokračovat »