Poets of Dissent and Despair

  October 24, 2021   Read time 4 min
Poets of Dissent and Despair
‘Aref’s song about Shuster was part of the poetry of dissent that found expression during the Constitutional Revolution. In what might be called the poetic space, Iranians often questioned the prevailing political and religious values of their society and condemned hypocrisy, greed, and violence.

With the coming of the Constitutional Revolution, the press and publications offered a new generation of poets and intellectuals a chance to free themselves from the patronage of the Qajar court and nobility and compose work in a language accessible to ordinary people. Using classical Persian forms and images, the host of poets of the period went beyond political discourse to appeal to their audiences not only through press and publications but also through musical concerts, performances, and especially the medium of popular songs (tasnif).

The message of the new poetry engaged with the revolutionary aspirations and agonies. While still loyal to such themes of classical poetry as pantheistic gazing at nature, longing for the beloved, expressing nostalgia for bygone times, and despairing over the loss of youth, the poets of the period also bemoaned the ruination of the motherland and its loss to hostile and covetous foreign powers. The glorious days of Iran’s ancient past versus the cruel tyranny of its present, the grip of the greedy and corrupt elite on the people, the ignorance and bigotry of clerical leaders, the destitution and starvation, and the dark destiny that awaited Iran’s immediate future were also common themes.

Aspirations for progress, prosperity, and social justice were also present; they were goals that were achievable, it was thought, through mass education, modern sciences, technology, hard work, and the abandonment of past biases. Over time such hopes turned to despair as postrevolutionary Iran plunged further into political disorder and was subjected to foreign occupation. Visitation of deadly disease outbreaks, mass famine, and destitution of the multitudes were other reasons to mourn the fate of the nation. By the end of World War I, the Iranian intelligentsia, among them a few modernist poets, wished that a savior would appear to rescue Iran and accomplish the objectives of the revolution, even at the expense of forgoing the luxury of constitutional democracy.

Of seven major poets of the period, the most distinguished in poetic excellence and clarity of social message is perhaps Mohammad Taqi Bahar (1884–1951), who was then at the beginning of a long and eventful political, journalistic, and scholarly career. Born in Mashhad to a literary family, he inherited from his father the title of the poet laureate (malek alsho‘ara) of the shrine of the Eighth Imam. He soon turned to journalism and revolutionary poetry in his hometown, before moving to Tehran in 1912. In a famous poem in the mostazad style titled “It Is From Us What Befalls Us” (Az mast keh bar mast), composed in the same year, Bahar makes a dramatic call for self-criticism, a call that touches on issues typical of the intellectuals of the period:

The black smoke that arises from the roof of the motherland, It is from us what befalls us. The burning flames that flare from left and right, It is from us what befalls us. Even if we are at our last gasp, we should not complain of the stranger, We shan’t quarrel with the other. But complain of ourselves, this is the core of the matter. It is from us what befalls us. . . . We are that old plane tree who does not complain of the storm, But grows on the soil. What can we do? Our fire is in our belly, It is from us what befalls us. . . . Ten years were wasted in disputation in the madrasa, While staying awake all night. Today we see that all was a riddle. It is from us what befalls us. We claim we are awake now, what an illusion! What is our wakefulness, But that of an infant who needs a lullaby? It is from us what befalls us. We detest history, geography, and chemistry. We are alien to philosophy. But every madrasa is clamoring with “he said” and “I say.” They say Bahar is enamored of the West, body and soul, Or he is a crusading infidel. We do not dispute, for it is self-evident from this point: It is from us what befalls us.

At a time when the Majles closed under the Russian ultimatum and the constitution was suspended for the second time since its inception, Bahar evidently held the Iranian political left and the right, not the aggressive European powers, responsible for Iran’s plight. Typical of his time he represents the seemingly awakened Iranian nation as an infant who listens to childish lullabies rather than maturing with the study of humanities and sciences.