A SHORT HISTORY OF THE GHAZAL
Ever since the ghazal was introduced into English poetry, there has been confusion as to what constitutes a ghazal and which poems have a right to be identified as ghazals in English. By tracing the history and development of the ghazal over the more than a millennia and a half that it has been in existence, this article seeks to put recent efforts into perspective. It is hoped that a better understanding of the diverse and changing nature of ghazal writing in the past will help us to envision how the rich variety of contemporary works being written in English today fit into the broader context of ghazal writing.
This article traces the evolution of the ghazal. Starting with the ghazal’s origins in the pre-Islamic Arabian qasîdah, it follows the ghazal’s development in Medieval Arabia and Persia, and its adoption into the literatures of other languages and cultures.
ORIGIN OF THE GHAZAL
In pre-Islamic Arabia, the ghazal was not recognized as a major genre of poetry. This was the era of the “golden odes” – the great Arabic qasîdahs. There were various genres for the qasîdah, including the panegyric (madîh), the moralizing poem (hikam), the lampoon (hijâ’), and the boast (fakhr). However, the ghazal – the love poem – was not one of these.
Instead, what was later to become the ghazal was an integral part of nearly every pre-Islamic grand qasîdah. These qasîdahs were divided into three broad sections: the nasîb, the rahîl, and then whichever of the recognized poetic genres the poet intended. It is the nasîb, that opened the qasîdah, which would later develop into the ghazal.
Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889) explains, rather nostalgically, the way in which the old odes were constructed:
I have heard some literary personalities mention that the qasîdah would have to begin with mention of the homeland, one’s abode, and what has passed. The poet would mourn and pine about these things, address his land, and call for his travelling companions to stop. He would do this to as a means to make mention of those who had once lived there. . . . Then he would bring this to the nasîb, where he would lament the severity of his passion, the pain of separation, his longing, and his ardent love for his beloved. The purpose of this was to draw the hearts and attentions of his listeners to him, to prepare them to listen to him attentively. This is because rhapsodising about women is something close to the hearts and affections of men, since God has placed in the natural makeup of His male servants a love of dalliance (ghazal) and the society of women. Rarely is a man free from some manner of attachment and some real involvement – whether it be lawful or sinful.
When the poet is satisfied that he has his audience listening attentively, he follows this advantage and asserts his rights upon the listener, and thereby brings the rahîl where he laments the fatigue of travel, the passing of sleepless nights, the oppressiveness of the midday heat, and the emaciation of his camel.
Once he is sure he has justified to his listener his hope (of recompense), he starts with the praises (madîh), encouraging his listener’s generosity and patronage, asserting the superiority of his grace over that of his peers, and how incomparable it still is to his lofty stature.
A praiseworthy poet is one who employs this style, giving equal weight to each of the sections, not allowing any section of the poem to dominate over the others. He does not prolong anything too much so as to bore the audience, nor does he abbreviate anything so much as to leave the people wanting to hear more.
Though Ibn Qutaybah gives the panegyric poem as his example for the qasîdah’s final section, it does not have to be in that genre. The qasîdah could be in any of the other recognized poetic genres, like boasting (fakhr) a lampoon (hijâ’) or a didactic composition (hikam).
Ibn Qutaybah is credited with being the first literary thinker to attempt to explain the purpose behind beginning the qasîdah with the nasîb. His opinion was that the nasîb was essentially a means for the poet to win over the attention of his audience. This would remain the predominant view on the matter throughout the Middle Ages.
An alternate view suggested by Ibn Rashîq al-Qayrawânî (d 1064?) is that the amorous introduction was a means of bringing the poet into the proper poetic mindset. He draws this conclusion from the following personal account of the Ummayad era poet Dhû al-Rummah (696-735), which he relates as follows:
Dhû al-Rummah was asked: “What do you do as a poet when you have writer’s block?”
He replied: “How can I ever have writer’s block when I possess the keys to unlock my poetry?”
He was told: “Well, those are what we are asking you about.”
He said: “They are: solitude, and thinking about my loved ones.”
Ibn Rashîq then comments: This is on account of his longing. Indeed, when a poet begins his qasîdah with the nasîb, he has placed his foot in the stirrup.
The modern scholar, Hayât Jâsim, regards the nasîb as having fulfilled an important psychological need both for the poet and the audience within the context of Bedouin life. She writes:
Love, being as it is an emotion of beauty, is intrinsically tied to the hopes of all people. They pine for it in youth, take pleasure in it during maturity, and lament its loss in old age. Love is a glimmer of light at times of despair, a wave of strength in times of weakness, and a trusty weapon against severity and hardship. Why would the pre-Islamic poets not exploit this emotion as a foil against the harsh and austere realities of their way of life, where the threat of death was always present? Love served to represent what was good in life. Love culminating in union represented happiness and prosperity. Separation and tears represented bittersweet pain and sweet sorrow.
Essentially, for a people whose lifestyle was one of violence, hardship, and material want, the various manifestations of love were the most precious and valued possibilities of worldly delight.
Recent scholarship attempts to trace the nasîb further back in time, back to its origins in prehistory. Scholars like Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych and Jaroslav Stetkevych do not accept the idea that the pre-Islamic nasîb was merely a rhetorical prelude or a concrete representation of Bedouin life. Jaroslav Stetkevych, by analysing the recurrent motifs in the nasîb, identifies its origin in Ancient Near Eastern ritual, myth, and poetry.
Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych argues that the three parts of the classical Arabic qasîdah owe their origins to the poetics of ritual of the Ancient Near East, formulated on a seasonal pattern. She writes on the panegyric qasîdah:
(W)e are dealing with a Bedouin variant of the Ancient Middle Eastern agrarian pattern in which the “harvest” is not the seasonally determined one of grain, but the metaphorical “harvest” of human lives on the battle “field.”
In this, she follows the model presented by Theodor Gaster, who describes the structure of Ancient Near Eastern seasonal ritual as having been comprised of two rites of Emptying followed by two rites of Filling. These four rites in order were: mortification – purgation – invigoration – and jubilation.
The rite of mortification, in agrarian societies, symbolized the state of “suspended animation” at the end of the year when the annual lease on life had drawn to a close and the new one had not yet begun. The rite of purgation symbolized the agrarian community’s attempt to rid itself of all the physical and moral evil that might threaten the renewal of its vitality in the coming year. The rite of invigoration was the community’s attempt to procure a new lease on life. Finally, the rite of jubilation represented the sense of relief at the commencement of the new year and the continuation of the natural cycle.
Stetkevych argues that the nasîb, the rahîl, and the madîh originated in these four rites. She explains:
. . . Ibn Qutaybah’s formulation is tripartite. It is quite possible, however, to see in the nasîb, which comprises a description of the abandoned encampment, the lost mistress, the complaint against old age, etc., an expression of mortification, “suspended animation”; in the rahîl which comprises the recounting of the hardships of the desert crossing and the description of the poet’s mount, the she-camel, purgation; the third and final section, in this case madîh (panegyric), must then be understood as encompassing both aspects of Filling, invigoration and jubilation, as such common elements as the battle or hunt followed by the feast would certainly allow.
This current research into the origins of the nasîb – and by extension the ghazal – is certainly intriguing. There can be no doubt that the fully-formed pre-Islamic qasîdah that we see at the dawn of Arabic written literature did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. It had behind it a long, unrecorded history that can only be deduced through indirect means.
THE FLOWERING OF THE ARABIAN GHAZAL
During the early Islamic era (622-661), there were no substantial changes in poetic practice. The pre-Islamic tradition continued more or less as it was, except that the writing of shorter poems became more popular, often for political and religious purposes. However, the ghazal was not given any particularly special attention among these shorter works.
The ghazal came into its own as a poetic genre during the Ummayyad Era (661-750) and continued to flower and develop in the early Abbasid Era.
Though three-part qasîdahs continued to be written, it was during Ummayyad times that the pre-Islamic qasîdah was broken up into its constituent parts. Lampoons, boasts, panegyric poems, and moralizing poems were now written on their own. Even the term qasîdah started to become more or less synonymous with the more general notion of a “formal poem”.
The ghazal was also separated out during this time, becoming a stand-alone poetic genre in its own right, and as such it enjoyed exceptional popularity and considerable patronage.
The ghazal, along with the other Arabic poetic genres, inherited from its pre-Islamic origins the formal verse structure of the qasîdah. A poem in this form is always constructed from lines of a single meter, where each line (called a bayt in Arabic and a sher in Persian) is constructed from two metrical hemistiches and ends on the same rhyme (qâfiyah). The Persians would later add certain other features to the ghazal, as we shall see, but the underlying form would remain the same.
Though the ghazal during the Ummayad period was understood to be a poetic genre dealing with the theme of longing for the beloved, it also had to adhere strictly to the formal verse structure it inherited from the qasîdah. The marriage between this particular verse form and the theme of longing would continue to be the defining character of the ghazal wherever it was adopted in the world. Even when formal innovations and variations were introduced into the ghazal by practitioners of the art in the contexts of different languages and cultures, the theme of longing – whether it be romantic, erotic, mystical, or divine – and this underlying form would always be there.
As the ghazal came into its own during the Ummayad period, it grew into the most popular poetic genre of the time, and would remain so for centuries to come. The middle and upper classes of the new and growing urban centres of the Arab world demanded entertainment, and at the forefront of this new entertainment industry were music and song. The popularity of the ghazal reached dizzying heights due to its suitability for musical diversions.
The nature of the ghazal changed drastically to meet the demands of light musical entertainment. It generally became a briefer composition. Its choice of meter changed. Instead of the long, ponderous meters that had been favoured for the qasîdahs – meters like kâmil, basît, and rajaz – lighter meters like khafîf, ramal, and muqtarab were preferred, along with abridged variants of the longer meters. Topically, instead of focusing on nostalgic reminisces of the homeland and the loved-ones left behind, the focus of ghazals became romantic or erotic, or otherwise highly stylised and affected.
As the popularity of the ghazal grew, different schools of ghazal writing developed, which introduced into Arabic literature a rich variety of poetic sub-genres. The most important of these sub-genres were as follows:
1. Courtly Love (`udharî). This genre of poetry focuses on devotion towards a woman who was beyond approach and with whom love could never be consummated. Poems written in this genre focus on the pain of longing and the passions of the heart and are nearly free of eroticism and references to physical desire.
Poets writing in this genre usually devote all of their output, or at the very least a long sequence of poems, to a single love interest. Jamîl b. Ma`mar (d. 701) has his Buthaynah. Kuthayyir b. `Abd al-Rahmân (660?-723?) has his `Azzah. `Urwah b.Hizâm has his `Afrah. Tawbah b. al-Humayr has his Laylâ.
Describing this genre of ghazal as the genre of “courtly love” is accurate insofar as the themes of these ghazals are nearly identical to those of the courtly love tradition of the European High Middle Ages. However, this genre was not exceptionally popular at the urban courts. It was rather a favourite of the desert regions of the Hijaz and Najd.
2. Erotic (hissî). Representing the genre most popular with the Umayyad urban elite, the erotic ghazal is typified by graphic physical descriptions of the object of desire, often limb by limb. `Umar b.Abî Rabî`ah (644- 712/719) is the most notable poet of erotic ghazals.
3. Introductory (tamhîdî). This genre of ghazal, also referred to as “traditional” (taqlîdî) is specifically employed to act as a prologue or introduction to poems of other genres. This practice is a holdover from the pre-Islamic three-part qasîdah. There are two differences between this form and the nasîb of the three-part qasîdah. First, the introductory ghazal is highly stylised, and second, it enters straight into the main genre of the poem without being followed by a rahîl.
This genre was perfected by Jarîr (650-728), Farazdaq (641-728/730), and al-Akhtal (640-710).
The practice of beginning poems of other genres with a ghazal went in and out of vogue more than once, and at various times had its ardent supporters and equally ardent detractors. This was particularly the case during the early Abbasid period.
It was within this genre that a certain literary art was perfected – that is the art of husn al-takhallus (literally: beautiful extrication), the art of modulating smoothly from one genre to another within a poem. During the pre-Islamic period, the nasîb could end rather abruptly into the rahîl, a practice which was frowned upon for the introductory ghazal of the Ummayad period.
The introductory ghazal developed a further sub-genre of its own: the conceit (qaydî). This is where the ghazal itself is an elaborate ruse for the main genre of the poem, which would quite often be a lampoon. Ibn Qays al-Ruqayyât (d. 704) is known for this sub-genre. Taha Hussein credits him as its originator.
4. Homoerotic (mudhakkar). This genre of the ghazal became important in the early Abbasid period. One of its most renowned practitioners was Abû al-Nuwâs (750-810).
THE SPREAD OF THE ARABIAN GHAZAL
The Arabic ghazal spread from Arabia into Africa and Spain, as well as into Persia.
In medieval Spain, ghazals were written in Hebrew as well as Arabic. An important writer of Hebrew ghazals, and one of its chief defenders, was Moses ibn Ezra (1058-1155). There is a remote possibility that ghazals were also written in Mozarabic (an early form of Spanish written in Arabic script) since jarchas, poems related to the muwashshah – a particularly Andalusian Arabic poetic form – have been found in this language.
Poems in the Arabic form have been written in a number of major West African literary languages like Hausa and Fulfulde. African practitioners of this type of poetry were as concerned with adapting the Arabic meters as they were with adopting the themes and formal structure of Arabic poetry. Hausa poets, for instance, adopted the Arabic forms and meters into their written poetry in the nineteenth century. In doing so, they had to translate the Arab quantitative metrical sequences into roughly corresponding sequences based on the heavy and light syllables of the Hausa language.
The ghazal was also adopted very early on by the Persians, who developed it into something uniquely their own. These developments will be discussed at length in the following section.
Wherever the Arabian ghazal was introduced into the literature of another language – whether we are talking about Africa, Spain, or Persia – it was preceded by the cultural dominance of the Arabic language in that region. Arabic was, at the very least, a major language of education in those cultures at the time when the ghazal was first adopted as a local poetic form. The poets who pioneered the introduction of ghazals in their native languages had all written ghazals in Arabic as well.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE PERSIAN GHAZAL
The Persians during the Abbasid period were keen on adopting Arabic verse structures and meters into the Persian language. The beginnings of the ghazal in Persian was a time of imitating and adapting the Arabic form.
In truth, the earliest ghazals written in Persian are essentially Arabian ghazals. Only two real differences can be discerned in these poems that we might call “Arabo-Persian”. The first is a change in sensibilities regarding the poetic line. The early Persian ghazal poets did not exhibit radical enjambment between the hemistiches, nor did they generally employ any kind of enjambment between the lines, which were showing themselves to be more and more like couplets. There was, like in the Arabic ghazals, a strong overall continuity and flow of meaning between the lines of the poem. The poems were still an organic whole. This would gradually change over time, with the couplets growing more and more autonomous.
The second difference between the early ghazals written in Persian and their Arabic counterparts is that the use of tasrî` (in Persian ghazals: matla) – which is to have the first line/couplet of the poem employ the rhyme in both of its hemistiches – became a formal norm instead of an optional embellishment.
It should come as no surprise to us that the ghazal was not to be the only type of Arabic poem that the Persians emulated. They also wrote panegyric poems, lampoons, boasts, and didactic compositions after the Arabic poetic models.
Browne classifies Persian poetry into two broad categories: “many-rhymed” where the two hemistiches of a single line rhyme with each other, but with the poem exhibiting a variety of rhymes throughout, and “one-rhymed” where a single rhyme is kept and the only place where the first hemistich rhymes as well is in the opening couplet. The former is represented by the uniquely Persian mathnawi, while the latter include the borrowed Arabic forms – the qasîdah, the qit`ah, and the ghazal – as well as some hybrid inventions like the ruba`iyyat.
What distinguishes the ghazal during this early period is the ghazal’s focus and textual style. Mûsâ explains: “The style of the ghazal required a sweetness of word choice and a smoothness of meaning. The meters chosen for the ghazal were to be the most musical ones, like hazaj, ramal, mudâri`, and khafîf, though there was no formal prohibition against the use of other meters.”
It is interesting to note that many of these are the same light meters that the Arab poets had already begun favouring for their ghazals during the Ummayad period.
Also, Persian ghazals usually tended to be brief, usually between seven to fifteen couplets – though there are a number of important exceptions to this – while Arabic ghazals, as well as Persian qasîdahs, could be much longer.
Since the above description of the ghazals written in Persian at this time can apply to quite a number of Arabic ghazals and none of the differences constitute an actual formal deviation from the Arabic norm, we can say that these early Persian examples still fit into the broad formal pattern of the Arabian ghazal.
An important Persian writer of ghazals at this time was Abdullah Jafar Rudaki (859-941). Dr. Reza Zadeh Shafegh counts him as “the first of the great poets of Iran”.
Rudaki was certainly the most praised of the ghazal writers of his time. Al-Unsuri praised his ghazals. Abu al-Fadl al-Bal`ami said: “There is no one among the Arabs or the non-Arabs like Rudaki.” This statement is telling. It shows the close proximity that existed at the time between Persian and Arabic literature, in that critics would readily compare between the two.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE EARLY PERSIAN FORM
As time went on, the Persian ghazal grew into a unique poetic form. While the topics that could be addressed by the ghazal widened – though still remaining within the general theme of longing – its form grew more and more distinctive.
The first significant development that occurred in the form of the Persian ghazal was the adoption of the takhallus. This is the practice of mentioning the poet’s pen name in the final couplet.
This takhallus should not be confused with the disengagement of the Arabian introductory ghazal. It is unlikely that the term even derives from the husn al-takhallus of the Arabian introductory ghazal. It is more likely that this use of the term is derived from an Arabic notational mark called the takhallus, which used to be written above a word in a document to identify it as the author’s name. The takhallus of the Persian ghazal is a Persian innovation, and it is a clear formal addition to the essential Arabic form.
Like any other stylistic trend in literature, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the takhallus came into vogue. It was not at all in evidence during the era of Rudaki. However, by the twelth century, Musa asserts that “poets were consistent in mentioning the takhallus and they rarely neglected it thereafter.”
By contrast, Browne does not regard the takhallus as being a standard fixture of the Persian ghazal “before the Mongol invasion” which took place in the year 1218.
Yahya Dawud `Abbas identifies this innovation with the poet Sina’i (d. 1141), a third of whose poems end with his takhallus. He also points out that Jalal al-Din al-Asfahani (d. 1192) never used the takhallus.
Al-Khaqani and al-Anwari were consistent in their use of the takhallus.
The adoption of the takhallus was most likely a gradual development, becoming more and more ubiquitous throughout the 12th century. By Saadi’s time, it had become the formal norm.
This development was coupled with another growing trend towards a far greater degree of autonomy to the meaning of each couplet. This is another marked departure from the ghazal’s Arabic forebears.
These two qualities, therefore, typify the ghazals written in Persian through the remainder of Ghaznavid era (which lasted until 1187) up to some time after the Mongol invasion.
We can call this form, typical of the 12th and early 13th centuries, the “early Persian ghazal”. It is a form typified by brevity, takhallus, and a substantial autonomy of the couplet. It is already quite distinct formally from its Arabic counterpart, as well as from the Persian qasîdah and qit`ah, the other Arabic-derived forms.
One of the most important writers of this form of ghazal is Muslih-ul-Din Saadi (1184-1283/1291?). He lived at the very end of the period in question, and indeed, had to flee from the Mongols when they invaded his home city of Shiraz in the year 1264.
He is regarded by many to be one of the greatest Persian ghazal writers of all time, comparable to no less than Hafiz.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE LATE PERSIAN FORM
Persian ghazals evolved substantially after the Mongol invasion, a period in Persian history known as the Early Mongol Period. The radif, which had formerly been a relatively rare device first introduced as a decorative embellishment, became a standard formal feature during this time. The radif is the Persian refrain, a repeating word or phrase that comes immediately after the rhyme in every rhyming line of the poem. We can appreciate how important a formal feature the radif is in that, since it is still part of the meter, its use necessitates placing the rhyme (qâfiyah) earlier in the metrical sequence.
In this era, the couplets remained extremely autonomous in meaning, even growing in autonomy until each couplet often behaved like a miniature poem in its own right. This is the poetic ideal where the couplet is compared to “a precious pearl in a necklace.”
We can call this form the “late Persian ghazal”, the final form that Persian ghazals were to take. Like the takhallus, it is hard to chart the development of the radif as a feature of Persian ghazals with exact precision.
The radif existed as a very uncommon ornament in Persian poetry from quite early on.  Instances of radif are found in a few poems dating from before the tenth century. Rudaki exhibits radif in two of his poems that are not ghazals. Other early isolated examples exist in various poetic genres for poets like Mahmud-i Varraq, Shahid-i Balkhi, Abu Shukur, Ma`rufi, and Daqiqi. These are the very first known examples of the radif in post-Islamic Persian verse. At this time, however, the radif is a rare ornament that could hardly be said to have any particular affiliation with the ghazal.
By the twelfth century, the radif had become a common poetic ornament in Persian poetry in general, though still not a strict formal convention of the ghazal. Franklin D. Lewis cites the following description of the radif from Rashid al-Din Vatvat’s twelfth century treatise on poetics:
The radif is a word, or more than a word, in Persian poetry which recurs [in each line] after the rhyming word. Such poetry is called by practitioners of the craft muraddaf – poetry with a refrain. The Arabs do not use refrains, except in the case of recent innovators attempting to display their virtuosity. Most Persian poems have a refrain, for the expertise and versatility of the poet is made obvious in composing poems with a refrain.
Lewis then comments that by the time of the poet Farid al-Din `Attar (d. 1221?) the radif had become as commonplace as Rashid al-Din describes it to be, with over half of the poems in Attar’s Divan having a radif after its rhyme.
A few of Saadi’s ghazals are written with radif. By contrast, the radif is the norm for the ghazals of his younger contemporary, Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), who is only a little more than twenty years his junior. This can be seen in Rumi’s exquisite Divan-e Shams.
The radif becomes the overwhelming norm for the ghazals of the later Persian masters, like the fourteenth-century Hafiz, though most of the later poets occasionally wrote ghazals in the older style without radif.
It is important to keep in mind that even though the takhallus and radif had become important formal elements of the Persian ghazal, they were not taken as necessary elements for a poem to be recognized as a ghazal. Either or both of these features could be – and sometimes were – dispensed with. The essential characteristics defining a ghazal remained what they had always been: formally, a specific type of metrical construction (bayt/sher) with monorhyme (qâfiyah), and thematically, the topic of longing for some object of desire. Therefore, what really separates the Persian ghazal from its Arabian and Arabo-Persian antecedents is the Persian ghazal’s distinctive linear autonomy.
During the thirteenth century, the ghazal took a pre-eminent place in Persian poetry, due to the growth of Sufism. The ghazal’s theme of longing proved particularly well suited to Persian mysticism, and from this time onward, the ghazal becomes less a vehicle for romantic or erotic love – as it would remain for many Arabic ghazals – and more a form devoted to the expression of the spiritual longing to be connected with the Divine.
The development of the Persian ghazal from its Arabo-Persian beginnings through the early Persian form to the late Persian form cannot be dated with any precision, due to the fluidity of the process and the overlapping of the various developmental trends. At the same time, the prevalence of different formal conventions in different eras provides us with a clear developmental progression over the course of centuries culminating in the Persian ghazal settling down into its distinctive form, possessing both takhallus and radif, by the end of the thirteenth century.
THE SPREAD OF THE PERSIAN GHAZAL
This late Persian form is the form of the ghazal that spread out from Persian-speaking areas, first into the Indian subcontinent and the Turkish regions of Asia, and then into Europe.
In the case of the Turkish and Indian ghazals, poets who were conversant in Persian were the ones to adopt the ghazal into their native tongues. The Persian language was at this time the dominant literary language in Central Asia and India, and most of the ghazal writers who wrote in other languages also had Persian ghazals to their credit. This is the same pattern that we have already seen when the ghazal first spread from Arabia into Persia, Africa, and Spain.
An important Ottoman Turkish ghazal writer was Fuzuli (1483-1556), who wrote in Azerbaijani Turkish. Another Turkish master was the Afghani poet Ali-Shir Nava’i (1441-1501), who wrote in the now extinct Chagatai language, and as such is regarded as the founder of Uzbek literature. He is also referred to as the “Chaucer of the Turks”, due to the important role he played in establishing the literary prestige of the Turkic languages.
In India, ghazals of the late Persian form were written in Persian as well as a number of Indian languages. Amir Khusru (1253-1325) was one of the earlier Indian poets writing in this form, and he wrote ghazals in both Persian and Hindi. Ghalib (1796-1869) was a one of the most renowned practitioners of this form in Urdu.
Today, ghazals in the late Persian form are written in Hindi, Gugurati, Punjabi, Bengali and every other major language of the Indian subcontinent.
The ghazal was introduced into Europe in the 19th century through translations of Persian works. Goethe’s translations of ghazals – as well as his famous collection of oriental-influenced poems entitled the “West-Eastern Divan” – inspired other German poets, including Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) and August Graf von Platen (1796-1835) to go farther and write in the ghazal form itself, which, since the nineteenth century, has developed into a substantial body of German poetry.
Among the most important of these works are August von Platen’s anthologies Ghaselen (1821) and Neue Ghaselen (1823). In the following, Ghazal 3, we can see how von Platen shows strict adherence to the late Persian form, including the employment of monorhyme – here on the sound “and” – and the radif – which in this case is the word “mich”:
Wohl mir, es heilte die liebende Hand mich,
Die mit balsamischem Blatte verband mich;
Als mich in Flammen umdrohte Verzweiflung,
Deckte des Glaubens asbesten Gewand mich;
Irrend durchstrich ich das waldige Dickicht,
Doch Philomele, die zärtliche, fand mich;
Sterbend im Ozean schwamm ich, der Delphin
Segelte ruhig ans blumige Land mich;
Schlüpfrigen Höhen entglitt ich zum Abgrund,
Aber die Rebe des Berges umwand mich.
An important convention seen here, and one that has persisted in ghazal writing for languages using the Roman alphabet, is to break the bayt/sher into two lines at the hemistich. We should also note that these are not separated by von Platen into distinct couplets. The stanzaic form would develop later on and become a convention for ghazals written in English.
Agha Sahid Ali (1942-2001) is widely regarded as the leading proponent of the late Persian form in English. He promotes this form in his own ghazal writing and through the landmark anthology he edited in 2000 entitled Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English.
R. W. Watkins edits Contemporary Ghazals, a Canadian print journal which is also devoted to this form.
THE STORY IS NOT OVER YET
Recent developments in the ghazal writing of the Indian subcontinent include a relaxation of certain formal restrictions. According to Abhay Avachat, a number of contemporary Urdu ghazals use alternating meters for each hemistich of the sher and many poems dispense with the takhallus while retaining the radif.
A number of innovations have taken place as a consequence of the ghazal being adopted by poets writing in European languages. Western cultures, the English-speaking ones no less than the others, have a tendency to adopt, adapt, and modify various artistic forms from other cultures to their own needs at a rapid pace, and this is certainly true for the ghazal. From the onset of ghazal writing in German in the nineteenth century, European writers have used the conventional meters of their own languages, rather than trying to emulate the meters of the people from whom they borrowed the ghazal form. Few attempts have been made to adapt the Arabic meters and rhythms into European languages, which is in stark contrast to what had been the case when the Persian and African poets first adopted the Arabian form into their own languages.
Many contemporary ghazals, moreover, are written in free verse. However, keeping in harmony with the overall ghazal form, there is a tendency in free-verse ghazals to exhibit a degree of internal consistency regarding line length.
It is also very common for English ghazals to have radif and no rhyme, a situation that had never appeared before the twentieth century. Indeed, many ghazals written in English possess only two distinctive features – the couplet form and the autonomy of the couplet. It would seem that the autonomy of the sher in the Persian ghazal is what attracts many English-language poets to the form.
This is undoubtedly the case with Adrienne Rich, who after working on a translation project of Ghalib’s ghazals, embarked upon various series of ghazals of her own authorship in free-verse couplets. These include Homage to Ghalib in 1968 – described by David Caplan as “the ghazal sequence that would be the first published by an American poet” – and The Blue Ghazals.
She says the following about her reason for writing ghazals:
I certainly had to find an equivalent for the kinds of fragmentation I was feeling, and confusion. One thing that was very helpful to me was working on the translations from the Urdu poet Mirzah Ghalib, which led me to write original ghazals. There, I found a structure which allowed for a highly associative field of images. And once I saw how that worked, I felt instinctively, this is exactly what I need, there is no traditional Western order that I have found that will contain all these materials.
I found a structure which allowed for a highly associative field of images. And once I saw how that worked, I felt instinctively, this is exactly what I need, there is no traditional Western order that I have found that will contain all these materials.
— ADRIENNE RICH
The same tendencies can be found in the ghazals of John Thompson’s 1978 Stilt Jack, published posthumously. Dan Reve asserts that Thompson (1938–1976) “is to be credited with the introduction and dissemination of the ghazal in Canada.” Thompson proved influential on other Canadian poets, particularly Phyllis Webb and Douglas Barbour.
One interesting and recent formal development in English ghazal writing is what we might call the “tercet ghazal”, a form developed by Robert Bly for his anthology The Night Abraham Called to the Stars. This form can be described as a poem constructed from a series of autonomous tercets, each tercet consisting of highly enjambed free-verse lines of relatively uniform length. In its fullest realization, the final line of the tercet ends upon the radif, which introduces itself at the end of the first tercet’s initial line. All of the poems in the anthology are composed of exactly six tercets. Many do not employ radif at the end of each tercet. However, some, like the title poem, repeat a word throughout the tercets, which then concludes the poem.
Is the ghazal a form or a genre?
Another important twentieth century trend in ghazal writing – especially for European languages, but true also for Asian languages – is to focus on the ghazal as a form to the exclusion of its being a genre. Ghazals are frequently being defined purely by some or all of their conspicuous formal elements – monorhyme, bayt/sher/couplet arrangement, autonomy of the bayt, takhallus, and radif – and not by their being topically about the theme of longing. The formal aspects of the ghazal are being applied to poems of every conceivable topic – even to Language poems.
In Asia, this is a more striking and radical development than Western poets might appreciate it to be. In the Persian, Turkish, and South Asian literary cultures of the past, a poem written with radif, linear autonomy, and takhallus, brought with it an expectation of a literary treatment of longing – whether sensual or spiritual – a poem that would focus on the “beloved” in one way or another. This is still primarily the case in Asia. However, it is no longer difficult to find the formal norms of the ghazal being used to treat a wide range of other quite disparate topics and themes.
This divorce between form and theme – dissolving a marriage that had persisted worldwide in ghazal writing for over 1400 years – has also taken place in the Arab world, but in a drastically different way. This has come about as a result of the introduction of free verse into Arabic poetry in the mid-twentieth century, which has precipitated a revolution in how literary terms are defined. The term qasîdah – which has always before indicated a poem with strict meter and monorhyme – is now being used for free verse poems as well. In modern Arabic usage, the word qasîdah is merely a generic term for “poem”, so much so that in order to specify that a modern poem is written in a classical meter, it has to be qualified as “shi´r ´amûdî” or a “formal” poem.
This has had many far-reaching consequences for Arabic poetic discourse. For one thing, it has resulted in a change in how the word ghazal is defined. In modern Arabic literature, “ghazal” has become purely a genre term, and not a term defining both form and genre. In the past, a poem about love or longing, if it was written in any other verse form besides that of the qasîdah, would not be referred to as a ghazal. If its form were that of a nazam or a maqâm, it would not be regarded as a proper poem. If a love poem were written as a muwashshah, it might deserve respect as a poem – but as a muwashshah on the theme of love and not as a ghazal.
This is no longer the case. The term ghazal is purely thematic. A poem written in free verse that deals with the themes of love or longing is called a ghazal, regardless of its form. This explains why a free verse poet like Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) can be lauded in the Arab world as one of the twentieth century’s foremost ghazal writers, and why recent anthologies of ghazals in Arabic will have free verse and prose poems presented alongside those written in the classical form.
This development in the Arabic usage of the word ghazal is not likely to have an effect on how the term is understood by speakers of other languages. As a purely genre term simply meaning “love poem”, it is something that speakers of other languages can dispense with. The opposite trend, to use the term ghazal as a purely formal term, seems now to be well-established in English poetic discourse – though exactly how that form is to be defined has remained a point of contention.