Saturday, May 24, 2008

From "Sohrab and Rustum" by Matthew Arnold

The story of Rustum and Sohrab is a beloved legend from Zoroastrian mythology popularized by the 11th century Persian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi in his great epic Shahnameh. Growing up I read many of Shahnameh's stories written for children in Urdu. The names and adventures of the noble Persian kings, their Turani enemies and sundry heroic warriors made an indelible impression and even to this day the names of Afrasiab, Kai Qobad, Rustum, Sohrab and Jamshed resonate in my memory.

"Sohrab and Rustum" is a poem by the 19th century English poet and famous literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). It was written in 1853. I am currently reading "The Portable Matthew Arnold" edited by Lionel Trilling and below is Trilling's own outline of the epic story of Rustum and Sohrab followed by an excerpt from the poem. The poem is too long to reproduce in its entirety but the famous passages excerpted below are from the end of the poem. Most of the place names are locations in the valley of the River Oxus (now called Amu Darya), a Central Asian river which passes through Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan before emptying into the Aral Sea.

"Rustum is the Persian epic hero; Sohrab is his son by a princess whom he had loved in early youth. Sohrab knows the identity of his father and longs to find him, but Rustum does not even know that he has a son. When they meet in single combat between the Persian and the Tartar armies, Rustum as the champion of the former, Sohrab as the champion of the latter, Rustum fights under an assumed name. Yet Sohrab suspects that his antagonist is the great Rustum and begs him to say so; Rustum for his part is drawn to the the youth and urges him to retire from an unequal contest. But Sohrab will not withdraw and Rustum will not disclose his identity. They fight, and at the climax of the combat Rustum cries aloud his name to terrify his enemy; Sohrab, not terrified but astonished, lowers his shield and is exposed to Rustum's spear, which pierces his side. Dying, he threatens the revenge his father Rustum will take. When Rustum denies that he ever had a son, Sohrab shows the family insignia of Rustum pricked on his arm. The proof is indisputable and the father and son at last know each other. In his grief and despair Rustum wishes for his own death." - Lionel Trilling

From "Rustum and Sohrab"

So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead;
And the great Rustum drew his horseman's cloak
Down o'er his face, and sate by his dead son.
As those black granite pillars, once high-reared
By Jemshid in Persepolis,to bear
His house, now 'mid their broken flights of steps
Lie prone, enormous, down the mountain side —
So in the sand lay Rustum by his son.

And night came down over the solemn waste,
And the two gazing hosts, and that sole pair,
And darkened all; and a cold fog, with night,
Crept from the Oxus. Soon a hum arose,
As of a great assembly loosed, and fires
Began to twinkle through the fog; for now
Both armies moved to camp, and took their meal:
The Persians took it on the open sands
Southward; the Tartars by the river marge:
And Rustum and his son were left alone.

But the majestic River floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there moved,
Rejoicing, through the hushed Chorasmian waste,
Under the solitary moon: — he flowed
Right for the polar star, past Orgunjè,
Brimming, and bright, and large: then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcelled Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles —
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foiled circuitous wanderer: — till at last
The longed-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

You can read the full text of the poem here. The image is a sculpture of Ferdowsi by the Iranian sculptor Ustad Abolhassan Khan Sadighi known as Master Sadighi (1894-1995)


Anonymous said...

sohrab and rustum is very interesting poem based on a realistic story

Anonymous said...

it looks nice, but need to know more about it any website any one knows to get the information!
by bazghah.

Anonymous said...

go to the internet archives and look up Ferdowsi, Persian poet/writer and read The Epic of Kings in which is the story of Sohrab and Rustem

Anonymous said...

I loved this heroic poem when I read it as a 16yo. This and many other stories and historical references inspired my recent visit to Iran which was wonderfully rewarding. Such a rich culture.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a great reminder of a great childhood story!

!رستم اور سہراب، واہ

It's funny, the other day, I was fantasizing about getting a Sohrab bicycle...

Another fantasy: do you know of any group that organises voyages along the length of the Oxus river? The Ferghana valley and the Oxus figure so many times in tales of the classical period and also of the medieval period, that it would be fascinating to visit the area!