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The Ghazal Form

The ghazal is the primary medium of expression used by Hafiz of Shiraz.  For centuries he has been praised for his incomparable mastery of the form. The ghazal is a specific, strict, Persian poetic form, like the English sonnet, which has been widely used since the early middle ages. As Elizabeth Gray (1995) explains, "Some believe that the classical Persian ghazal evolved from the nasib, the brief and often erotic prologue to the Arabic qasida, a longer ode with a ghazal-like rhyme scheme composed on pangyric, didactic, elegiac, or religious subjects. Others believe the ghazal developed from early Iranian folk poetry, about which we know nothing. Others believe it to be a blending of indigenous Persian lyric with the more formal structures and themes of earlier Arabic poetry" (pp. 6).

The following brief excerpt from An Introduction to Persian Literature, by Reuben Levy (1969), expands on some of the important qualities of the ghazal.

"A people with as long a cultural tradition as the Iranians, and one endowed with such fertility of imagination, could not be content merely to borrow. As in other fields, they adapted what they took; out of the erotic prelude of the qasida they fashioned the ghazal (a word derived from an Arabic original meaning "lovers' exchanges"), a separate lyric form having something of the character of the European sonnet. So far as rhyme is concerned it follows the qasida in structure, but it is normally much shorter, consisting of about eight to fourteen lines, the last of which at a later stage of development contained the poet's pen name. The framework is fixed, since there was no poetic license, and in each line rhythm and meaning coincide. The contents are lighter than those of the qasida, and the style of language used is more polished. The most normal theme was love, mystical or human, the homosexual being recognized; but anything might be touched on that stirred the emotions-the caprices of fortune's whirligig, the mystery of life in the world, the upsurging happiness of springtime, or the joys and sorrows of friendship or other earthly attachments. Subjects like these touch most human beings, and the spark struck by the poet may leap the gap between man and man."

"When verse appears in the musical language of the masters of the ghazal, the thirteenth-century Sa'di of Shiraz and his even greater fellow citizen Hafiz, who lived about a hundred years later, it becomes understandable why Persians have always preferred it to prose for their literary efforts. "Verse is to prose," says the eleventh- century author of the Qabus-nama, "as the king is to his subjects, what is suited to one being unsuited to the other." Two centuries later, Shamsi Qais, author of a manual of prosody and the poetic art, being perhaps not altogether disinterested, proclaimed bluntly:

However good your prose may be, it is improved when a poet turns it into stanzas felicitously worded. In poetry the fortunate man expressed his joy on his day of happiness, in poetry the warrior boasts of his victory on the day of battle. And let him who attracts the poet's displeasure beware, for he will never wipe away the stain.

"In the opinion of the fifteenth-century literary biographer Daulatshah, "famous poets are the tirewomen who clothe virgin ideas in wedding garb; or they are the divers who bring up the pearls from imagination's depths." In the Persian idiom, a poet deals with verses as though they were pearls which he strings together after he has pierced them. Hafiz, in the closing line of one of his best known ghazals, apostrophizes himself and says:

You've spoken your ode, having strung your pearls,
Now Hafiz, sing it sweetly to us;
For on your verse the sky has strewn
Pearls from the necklet of the Pleiades.

"Each verse of the ghazal is usually complete in itself, though one meter and a single rhyme run through the whole poem, the second half of each line balancing the first half in theme and echoing it in rhythm. From their being self-contained in this fashion, it is not unusual to find thafthe lines of a ghazal in one edition are set down in a different order from those in another, giving rise to the criticism that it is difficult to follow any one theme throughout a single ghazal. In modern times the reply to that criticism has been that the lines are in fact variations on a theme, their subtleties being too deep for the ordinary uninitiated hearer or reader. However, one brilliant line can make a ghazal, and establish its author's fame as a poet" (pp. 33-35).

Works Cited

Gray, E. (1995).  The Green Sea of Heaven.  Ashland: White Cloud Press.

Levy, R. (1969). An introduction to Persian literature.  NewYork: Columbia University Press.


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