Persian literature in Western culture

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The influence of Persian literature in Western culture is historically significant. In order to avoid what E.G. Browne calls "an altogether inadequate judgment of the intellectual activity of that ingenious and talented people" (E.G.Browne, p4), many top calibre centers of academia throughout the world today from Berlin to Japan, have permanent programs for Persian studies for the literary heritage of Persia.

L.P. Elwell-Sutton, "distinguished professor" of Persian studies of The University of Edinburgh calls Persian poetry "one of the richest poetic literatures of the world"(Elwell-Sutton, pII). And Persian Studies professor Dick Davis of the Ohio State University states that relative to its scope, more of Persian literature has passed into the common stock of English proverbial expression and cliché than is true of literary works of any other language.

Thomas Jefferson was also very fond of Xenophon's Cyropaedia, which summarized Cyrus the Great's life, and served as a contrast to Machiavelli's The Prince.

Ancient Persian literature[edit]

The study of Avestic and ancient Persian literature in the west began in the 18th century with scholars investigating Zoroastrian texts brought in from Bombay, India. It was the Frenchman Anquetil Duperron who first translated the Vendidad in 1759, followed by works of Sir William Jones and Sylvestre de Sacy, who worked on Pahlavi texts. The decipherment of the ancient cuneiform inscriptions came later in the 19th century by Grotefend of the Göttingen Royal Society.

Edward Fitzgerald[edit]

One can perceive the magnitude of the influence of Persian literature on its western counterpart when one investigates that, in the words of Christopher Decker of The University of Cambridge, "the most frequently read of victorian poetry, and certainly one of the most popular poems in The English language" was none other than Omar Khayyám's Rubaiyat (C. Decker). As a demonstrative metric, the 1953 edition of The Oxford Book of Quotations, contains no less than 188 excerpts from the Rubaiyat alone, of which 59 are complete quatrains, virtually two thirds of the total work of Omar Khayyám. Not even Shakespeare or the Authorized Version of the Bible are represented by such massive percentages.

Phrases like the following that are now part and parcel of the English language, have their origins in western discovered Persian literature:

  • '"A jug of Wine, a loaf of Bread - and Thou/beside singing in the wilderness"'
  • '"Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty face"'
  • '"The courts where Jamshid gloried and drank deep"'
  • '"I came like Water, and like Wind I go"'
  • '"The Flower that once has blown forever dies"'
  • '"And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky"'
  • '"...turn down an empty glass"'
  • '"The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on..."'

In the words of Dick Davis, Fitzgerald found the "twin soul" they had spent most of their lives seeking, in Khayam.


The encounter of Goethe with Hafiz's ghazals became so inspiring to Goethe, that he produced his own West-östlicher Diwan and "led the way to the discovery of Persian poetry by the Romantics", according to Shusha Guppy.

His west-ostlicher, and collection of poetry in general, gradually came to function as "an influential model for religious and literary syntheses between the ‘occident’ and the ‘orient’ in the 19th century", according to Jeffrey Einboden of Magdalene College in Cambridge, England, who is currently a professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nietzsche[edit]

Ralph Waldo Emerson was another admirer of Persian poetry. In his essays "Persian poetry" (1876, Letters and Social Aims), "From the Persian of Hafiz", and "Ghaselle", Emerson expressed admiration for Persian poetry, and through these writings became instrumental in creating a new genre of audiences for the unique qualities of Persian verse. "The excitement [the poems] produced exceeds that of the grape" he wrote. In his interest in Persian poets and poetry, one can glimpse a Dionysian side of Emerson, the side that appealed to Nietzsche. Emerson, who read Sa'di only in translation, compared his writing to the Bible in terms of its wisdom and the beauty of its narrative.[1]

Nietzsche, a radical opposer of Greek Metaphysical thought, was the author of the book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, referring to the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster, as the prophet of his philosophy.[1]

Nietzsche held very high interest and respect for Persians. For example, where he speaks about the Persian notion of history and cyclical Eternal Time, he writes: "I must pay tribute to Zarathustra, a Persian, for Persians were the first who thought of history in its full entirety." and further adds: ""It was much more fortunate if Persians became masters (Herr) of the Greeks, than the very Romans."[citation needed]

But Nietzsche was also influenced by Persia's post-Islamic writers as well. In his notebooks, Nietzsche uses an anecdote from Sa'di's Gulistan. La Fontaine also drew from Sa'di's Gulistan, basing his Le songe d'un habitant du Mogol on chapter 2:16, as did Diderot, Voltaire, Hugo and Balzac, all of whom referred to Sa'di's works in their writings.

Hafiz represented to Nietzsche a prime example of Dionysian ecstatic wisdom, which he extolls so extensively in his philosophy. Goethe's admiration for Hafiz and his "Oriental" wisdom, as expressed in the West-östlischer Divan, has been the main source of attracting Nietzsche's interest in this Persian poet. There is even a short poem in Nietzsche's Collected Works, entitled An Hafis. Frage eines Wassertrinkers (To Hafiz: Questions of a Water Drinker).

Rumi and the Sufist genre[edit]

Sufi ideas and literature gained interest in the west particularly after the first world war, beginning with non-cultist Sufis like Henry Wilberforce-Clarke and Sir Richard Burton, as well as scholars such as Maurice Nicholl, Kenneth Walker, and philosophers Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Writings of Attar, Jami, Hafiz, Shabistari, and Rumi came to influence a whole generation of writers.

Since the beginning of 21st century, Persian poet and philosopher Rumi has appeared as the most popular poet worldwide. His works, which have been partly translated to English, attracted attention of numerous thinkers and artists.

These, and subsequent works leads one to conclude that the influence of Persian literature extends beyond what was written in the Persian language to encompass works by those who thought in Persian when it came to literature, metaphysics, and philosophy, irrespective of their native tongues and ethnic origins.


  1. ^ Milani, A. Lost Wisdom. 2004. Washington. ISBN 0-934211-90-6 p.39

Links and articles[edit]

Hasan Javadi, Persian Literary Influence on English Literature, with special reference to the Nineteenth Century,1st edition Calcutta 1983, 2nd edition Costa Mesa, Mazda 2005. Hasan Javadi, "Matthew Arnold's 'Sohrab and Rustam' and its Persian original," Review of National Literatures,II,no. 1, New York,1971.The Persian of this article in Iran-nameh,vol.xx1,no. 3,Fall 2003. Hasan Javadi, "James Morier and his Hajji Baba," Iran Society Silver Jubilee Volume, Calcutta 1971.

See also[edit]