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the epic of kings

by abu ‘l-qasim ferdowsi tusi


Ferdowsi and the three Ghaznavid Court Poets

The third and final version of the epic poem whose composition had consumed over three decades of his life being at last complete, Ferdowsi, elated over his literary achievement, traveled to the imperial court, so that he could place the manuscript in the hands of Mahmud of Ghanzi, who had promised the poet a specific sum in reward for his work. But obloquy—that poison brewed by envy—had beat him there. Several prominent court poets’ whispered insinuations had the anticipated effect of rendering the ruler parsimonious. Ferdowsi, a man endowed with far greater gifts than his denigrators, was mortified. The few dinars that were offered him like an insult by this blind monarch contemptuous of his merit he flung away to a wine seller after departing from the palace in a state of high dudgeon. Later, the wound still rankling, he would avenge himself on the sultan in verse—the fate reserved for anyone who dares offend a poet.

Many years afterward, no longer able to repudiate the poem’s excellence and regretting the injury he had done its author, a repentant Mahmud sent a courier to Tusi with the full amount promised. But he had delayed too long: just as the courier was entering the city through one gate, a bier containing the corpse of Ferdowsi—who died in poverty—was being carried out through the other.


Here are a few of my favorite lines from the Shahnameh:


O you, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.
Still the vain world abounds in strife and hate,
And sire and son provoke each other’s fate;
And kindred blood by kindred hands is shed,
And vengeance sleeps not—dies not, with the dead.
All nature fades—the garden’s treasures fall,
Young bud, and citron ripe—all perish, all.


Tomb of Ferdowsi