Persian Prosimetrum

The genre of prosimetrum denotes a work in prose alternating with poetic verses. Despite its widespread nature in medieval Persian literature, little attention has been paid to prosimetrum qua genre. Julie Meisami’s article “Mixed Prose and Verse in Medieval Persian Literature” drew attention to the need to take poetical citations in Persian prose works seriously, arguing that they were not merely decorative but rather had a symbiotic relationship with the prose text. The panel proposes to build on this initiative by examining a number of medieval Persian prosimetrical texts with a view to determining the function of the poetic verses they contain and their relationship to the prose texts in which they are embedded. The first paper, entitled “Reflecting on the Prosimetric Mode and Its Functions,” serves as an introduction to the panel. It revisits the theoretical literature on prosimetrum and examines two Mongol-era historical texts—Tarikh-i jahan-gusha and Jami’ al-tavarikh—in order to demonstrate how the poetic citations they contain served an ideological purpose. The second paper focuses on Anvar-i suhaili, one of the most popular literary works in the late medieval Persianate world. It examines the differences between Anvar-i suhaili and its model, the twelfth-century Persian translation of Kalila wa Dimna, in terms of structure and the choice and placement of verse citations, and compares it with the Mughal-era ‘Iyar-I danish it inspired, in order to determine the aims of their authors. The third paper analyses the sources of the poetic verses cited in Akhlaq-i muhsini, an early sixteenth-century work of political ethics, and examines the relationship of the poetic citations to the prose text, based on concrete examples. Entitled “The Pitfalls of Prosimetrum,” it tackles the problem of authorship in an era when plagiarism was accepted as the mark of an author’s skill in weaving together a seamless mixture of prose and verse. The fourth paper, entitled “Quoting Old and New Poets in ‘Abd al-Baqi’s Ma’asir-i Rahimi,” examines the prosimetrical genre in the Indo-Persian historico-literary environment in to demonstrate how poetic form played a role in the ongoing negotiation of a canon of traditional and new poetry. A close reading of parts of Ma'asir-e Rahimi, the biography of a prominent Mughal general, illustrates the dual process of imitation of older models and innovation.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Maria Subtelny
University of Toronto


Charles Melville


by Julia Rubanovich / The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

From the sixth/twelfth century onwards prose-cum-verse styles of composition flourished in Persian prose. In the first part of my paper I will consider – from a theoretically-informed perspective - the findings on mixed prose and verse in medieval Arabic and Persian literature, as presented by Wolfhart Heinrichs and Julie S. Meisami respectively in a collection of articles Prosimetrum: crosscultural perspectives on narrative in prose and verse (eds. J. Harris&K. Reichl, 1997). I shall look into the question of what exigencies can possibly account for the medium shift within a single narrative and will suggest two major clusters of factors, focusing on the time-frame of the sixth/twelfth – seventh/thirteenth centuries: 1) intra-literary factors, i.e., those which are immanent to certain literary genres or works; 2) extra-literary factors, i.e., those related to such issues, as a literary canon, authorial self-awareness, value differentiation between verse and prose in a literary system of the period, and finally, the specific connotations of meaning imparted to the two media.

In the second part of the paper I will address the different usages of the prosimetric mode in two historical works – the Tārīkh-i jahān-gushā of Juvaynī (d. 1283) and the Jāmi' al-tavārīkh of Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1318; the parts available in Roushan's edition). The identical genre and the chronological proximity of the two compositions make them a fascinating case-study for our purpose. I will demonstrate that while both authors perceive prosimetrum as a means for “aestheticizing” the medium of prose and for granting a didactic stance to their narratives, in addition Juvaynī masterfully deploys it, first and foremost, in order to graft the tale of the Mongol conquest and the fortunes of the new rulers onto the narrative of the Iranian historical past.

by Christine van Ruymbeke / University of Cambridge

This paper (second paper in the Panel PERSIAN PROSIMETRUM) focuses on the Anvar-i Suhaili, one of the most popular literary prose works in the late medieval Persianate world. Husain Va’iz Kashifi composed this work in the early sixteenth-century for the Timurid audience at Herat. It is a rewriting of Nasrollah Monshi’s twelfth-century Persian version of the Kalila wa Dimna tales, also in prose. Its language is a finely woven web of tropes, using all the technical possibilities offered by Persian stylistics, and particularly, in a very prominent way, the inclusion of verses within the prose narrative. This is already present in the earlier work, Nasrollah’s Kalila wa Dimna tales, itself a remarkable example of prosimetrum.
This paper examines the prosimetrical nuances and differences between Husain Va’iz Kashifi’s work and its model, as well as with a later version of the tales, based on the Anvar-i suhaili: the sixteenth-century Mughal ‘Iyar-i Danish. These three works have, to the best of my knowledge, never yet been scrutinised in depth for their literary style, nor has the impact of the style chosen by the rewriters been analysed for their relevance to the contents of the stories.
More precisely, the paper examines what the occurrence, structure, choice, language and placement of verse citations within the narration in each of these three works can tell us about their authors’ aims and target audiences’ preferences. It will also attempt to shed light on the rationale behind the “rewriting the Kalila wa Dimna fables” phenomenon in the medieval Persianate world, taking into account the whole gamut ranging from verbatim citations, to similarities and to pointed differences.

by Maria Subtelny / University of Toronto

The Akhlaq-i muhsini, composed in 907/1501–2 by Kamal al-Din Husain Va’iz, known as Kashifi, a Timurid-era preacher, prosaist, and polymath, enjoyed great popularity in the late medieval Persianate world, as attested by the hundreds of manuscript copies in existence. The Akhlaq-i muhsini is a prosimetrical text in the full meaning of the term—that is to say, its structure is based on the regular alternation of prose and poetry. The ratio of prose to poetry is roughly 2:1. The problem is that rarely does Kashifi indicate the source of his poetic citations. Were the verses cited so well-known that his audience would have immediately recognized them? Or did Kashifi try to pass the verses off as his own? Unlike Sa’di, for example, who included in his Gulistan only verses of his own composition, Kashifi appears to cite only verses composed by other poets. An analysis of the sources of the poetic works chosen for citation will provide insights into Kashifi’s literary universe and perhaps that of his contemporary audience as well. The paper will use concrete examples to illustrate the relationship of the verses cited to the prose text. It will demonstrate how, in some cases, Kashifi has slightly altered the original poetic citations in order to illustrate or reinforce the point of a passage or an anecdote. In the final analysis, if most of the verses cited by Kashifi (not to mention the many anecdotes he relates), turn out to be the work of others, what is Kashifi’s role as author of the work? The paper seeks to draw attention to some of the pitfalls encountered in reading and interpreting the Akhlaq-i muhsini and other Persian prosimetrical texts dating from the late medieval period

by Sunil Sharma / Boston University

By the seventeenth century, poetry was used in almost all kinds of Indo-Persian prose texts, whether historical or belle-lettristic, ostensibly to break the monotony of the narrative. By this time writers had a large corpus of poetry to draw upon, from the so-called classical, middle and modern periods. How then were choices made about quoting particular poets and did this have any significance in the way a work was received and read? These questions will be taken up in a close analysis of one section of ‘Abd al-Bāqī’s Ma’āsir-e Rahīmī, a massive biography of the Mughal general, ‘Abd al-Rahīm Khānkhānan (1556-1626), completed in 1616. This work includes an account of the Khānkhānān’s military exploits, his building activities, as well as a biographical dictionary of individuals who benefited from his liberal artistic and literary patronage. In attempting to identify the models that ‘Abd al-Bāqī had before him for composing a work that was also novel in several respects, this paper will examine the use of poetic quotations in the text that allowed the author to commemorate certain classical poets, such as Anvarī, Khāqānī and Amīr Khusraw, while also including verses by recent poets from his own circle of friends. Given that the Ma’āsir-e Rahīmī was written in a milieu that was extremely conscious of the political implication of literature, the poetry included by the author in it becomes a fundamental part of its contents. The prosimetrum features of Mughal texts have not been studied seriously by scholars, the problem being compounded by unpublished texts and inadequate editions.