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Sitárah here, Afrasiab's second pride,
To dare all dangers where those damsels stray,
It has struck us, that there is a strong resemblance to Ferdusi's style, in the works of one of the most delightful of the European masters of the lyre, Ariosto: it is most remarkable, in the romantic and solitary adventures of the knights and heroes of these two poets, and, as in the instance just mentioned, in the perilous expeditions in which they engage in pursuit of the fair dames of the enemy's camp. Ariosto's oriental imagination made him choose a subject in which he might give full play to his native genius; and, at the time he wrote, the eastern muse, after travelling through Spain, was making the tour of southern Europe in disguise. There is in the Orlando a description of the "terrestrial paradise," more warm and Asiatic in its colouring than what we have extracted from Ferdusi. We will give the reader that part of the painting which includes the same objects that Ferdusi drew.
"Cantan fra i rami gli angeletti vaghi
A un modo sempre, e dal suo stil non falli,
Facea si l'aria tremolar d'intorno,
Che non potea nojar calor del giorno.
E quella ai fiori ai pomi e a la verzura
E di tutti faceva una mistura,
Orl. Fur. xxxiv. 50, 51.
We have already seen, that Ferdusi gloried in being a disciple of Mahomet, but the religion of his poem is that of the
Fire Worshippers, which was the faith of the Persians at the time of the invasion of the Arabs. There is a simplicity and sublimity about it, which make it peculiarly suitable to poetry; and though it can form no part of what is called the machinery of an epic poem, yet there is a wild grandeur in the adoration of God in his glorious emblem, the rising Sun, the dispenser of light and life, as consonant to the majesty of Ferdusi's vast subject, as it is to the fine climate and country where it was adopted. It was in the reign of Kishtasp, whom the Greeks called Darius Hystaspes, that Zerdusht, or Zeratusht, whom we know by the name of Zoroaster, published his works, which inculcated, we are told," the doctrine of two Principles, and recommended the worship of the good Principle under the allegory of Light, which he opposed to the bad, whose emblem was Darkness." "The king," it is added, "was much inclined to this doctrine, and raised a number of temples to the Sun, the fountain of Light; which the people, as usual, conceiving in a gross and literal sense, began to adore the effect instead of the cause, and the figure instead of the archetype. The priests took the hint, and the Sun, or Mithra, became really to them, our alchemists absurdly consider it, a powerful elixir, which transformed their base metals into gold." The Mussulman bigots cursed the Persian idolaters; but Ferdusi saw the advantage of introducing into his work the genuine religion of his forefathers, which was still secretly professed by many of his contemporaries, and was sufficiently obsolete to create a romantic interest in its former flourishing state.
Ferdusi describes the arrival of Zoroaster at the court of King Kishtasp, and the favour which his religion found in that monarch's eyes, under the figure of the rapid growth of a vast tree before the royal palace. We have preserved in the translation the singular transition that there is, in the original, from the allegorical representative of the prophet, to the prophet himself.
"As years on years successive roll away,
Thus saith the Lord, My prophet's word obey,
The king is converted, and, with all the zeal of a proselyte, busies himself to introduce the new faith as the religion of the state. He wisely begins the work of reform with his nobles; and so powerful was the influence of Zoroaster, or so weak the popular prejudices in favour of idolatry, that the worship of fire was quickly established throughout Persia. Our poet closes his account of this internal revolution, with the historical tradition of the first erection of a fire-temple. The figure employed in the former passage as typical of the prophet, seems in the following extract to apply, with greater precision, to the religion of which he was the founder.
"As year by year the rapid seasons flew,
Twice twenty cubits rose the fabric's height,
Kishtasp had a valiant son, named Isfendiar, whose actions are greatly extolled by the Persian poets. This is not the place to enter into any historical disquisition, and we shall therefore merely state, that this son, who did not live to occupy the throne of his father, is very generally supposed to have been the prince who is named Xerxes by the western historians, and who invaded Greece. Imperfect as the annals of Persia are known to be, it is most singular, that no trace of this remarkable event is to be found in any one of their chronicles. They do, it is true, commemorate his victories in the west; but when they name his conquests, they only appear to have extended to Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, and these he is said to have reduced
* The kamand, or noose, is used by all Ferdusi's heroes; and, though it sounds more unpoetical to us even than the bow-string, which in Asia excites sometimes ideas as unpleasant as the noose of a halter does with us, it was, in their day, an indispensable weapon, and thrown over the enemy's head to seize him in battle.
not only to the Persian temporal sovereignty, but also to the spiritual dominion of Zoroaster, to the pure worship of one God, and the adoration of his visible glory in the element of fire. Of Xerxes, or Isfendiar, the reader may perhaps feel anxious to know the history, according to the Persian records. As the Shah-námeh contains almost every particular of the antient annals, it may be referred to as one of the best historical authorities, and if it is difficult, as it certainly is, to reconcile its relation of the life and death of Xerxes with what we learn from the more faithful writers of Greece, we may be assured, that no other eastern writings would enable us to dissipate the cloud that hangs over this portion of oriental history.
After his return from his western conquests, the king, his father, suspecting him of an intention to seize the throne during his own life-time, directed his general, Rustem, to march against the supposed rebel. This is the last important exploit of Rustem's life, and, with him, ceases the most heroic age of Persian history. After a war of some continuance, the contest between these principal heroes of Ferdusi is decided by single combat. On the first encounter, Rustem is wounded by his adversary, and retires from the field discomfited. On this occasion, the poet calls to the aid of his favorite warrior the sacred bird, called the Simorg, which is represented as a beneficent being, preserving under its special protection our Persian Hercules. Ariosto, it has been conjectured, borrowed the notion of his Hippogriff from this fiction of Ferdusi, which is supposed to have found its way into Europe through the writings of the Spanish Arabs. But, besides that the Shah-námeh was written at a time when such an introduction of his fables was not likely to take place through a people who took no particular interest in Persian poetry, Ariosto's Griffin is a creation of a very different kind from the fairy bird of the Persian, as will appear from the following description of the mode which Rustem's father, Zál, adopted to invoke and obtain the assistance of this good genius, which he had assured his wounded son would restore him to his former vigour.
"Three golden censers in his halls he sought,
Then, while the censer kindled as they came,
Sees Zál beside it sit, o'erwhelm'd with care,
When thus the Simorg: What the weighty care
Which makes thee thus on incense waft thy prayer?"
There is no great resemblance between this being of oriental creation, except in the comparison to a bird, and
The Simorg, who is described as a "monster of the feathered tribe," by all the faithful artists who adorn the manuscripts of the Shah-númeh with their strange devices of the pencil, comforts the old man who had called her down from the sky; cures the hero and his horse of their wounds; and presents Rustem with an arrow, which would unerringly decide his next encounter with his enemy. The remembrance of his former defeat hung heavily on him when they next met, and his misgiving heart almost prompted him to have recourse to a milder method of avoiding the danger of a second disgrace; for, like Homer, our poet sometimes exposes his heroes more to the ridicule than the sympathy of his readers.
"But Rustem knew that prayer would ne'er controul
He drew his bow, and on its silken string
Fix'd the keen arrow, tipp'd with poison's sting,