Writers and poets who participate in a tradition of this kind create their works, either consciously or unconsciously, according to a set of artistic norms. These rules, governing matters of form as well as content, were laid down by preceding generations and are passed on to future generations as long as the tradition remains in force. The structure of literary conventions is safeguarded by certain standards of criticism that help to establish artistic values and by a canon of the most eminent representatives of the tradition.
Being a public matter, literary activities also are informed by the possibilities and constraints of the prevailing social and economic conditions. The extra-literary context not only affects the production and reception of literary texts, but also their distribution. Eventually, it determines the status of the writers, the poets and their art in society. As chronology is an essential element in the definition of a tradition, the historical perspective is to be considered as well. Just as historical changes affect all sectors of society, they also influence the position of the literary artist. The study of the intrinsic and the contextual conditions of a literary tradition in their proper diachronic perspective should be the fundamental objective of any history of literature.
In common usage classical Persian literature refers to the literary tradition that emerged in the third Islamic century (9th century CE) simultaneously with the renaissance of the Persian language as a literary medium. For more than a millennium it continued to exist as a living and extremely productive “tradition” (in the most appropriate sense of the term), which held unrivalled sway over all activities at the level of polite literature. Its normative strength was apparent also in the literatures of other Muslim nations who were not persophone, but were strongly influenced by the Persian literary tradition, in particular the Turks of Central Asia and Anatolia and the Muslim peoples of the Indian Subcontinent. Even nonMuslim denominations—notably the Jews and the Zoroastrians—faithfully followed the classical rules when they dealt in Persian poetry with subjects belonging to their own religious traditions.
The hegemony of the normative system of classical Persian literature was broken only in the 20th century, when a modern Persian literature emerged, a quite different tradition influenced strongly by Western models. The focus in this volume will be Persian literature in its classical form and as a written tradition. For a discussion of the general features of pre-Islamic and modern literatures as well as of forms of oral literature in the Iranian linguistic area the reader should turn to the volumes of this series that are specifically devoted to these subjects.