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The Poetry of Tahirih

March 7, 2020, in Articles > Art & Creative Works, by

The heroic life of Tahirih—Fatimih Umm-Salamih (1817- 1852)—has long been celebrated by playwrights, historians and Persian social reformers, especially those advocating women’s rights in present-day Iran. Though a 19th century poet of superb eloquence and variety, she is better known as a woman of dauntless faith, courage and resilience, whether by the Persian community in general or by the followers of the Baha’i religion, for whom she looms as one of the most memorable figures of the Heroic Age of the Baha’i Faith (1844-1921).

The story of her life as narrated in biographies, such as Tahirih the Pure by Martha Root, characterize her as fearless and unconventional in her daring words and actions, whether defying her father and husband, interacting with her co-religionists, or in a poem where she rehearses her vehement refusal to marry the king, Nasiri’d-Di Shah, even though her consent would have saved her from execution.

In light of such a storied life, it might not be surprising that more attention has been paid to her as a vital personality and a figure of historical importance than to her poetry and to her other writings. But, in fact, the main reason that more has not been done by way of celebrating her accomplishments as a poet, as an intellect, and as an astute scholar of religion, especially among modern literary and religious academics, is that it is only recently that anyone has had access to her work, whether in the original Persian, or translated into English.

Except for the briefer but memorable traditional lyrics, such as Face to Face, a passionate mathnavi that has been put to music, her poetry as a whole has never been publicly available. Unknown to most, her poetry exists in manuscripts that are in the Baha’i archives. Indeed, the first substantial collection of the original Persian and Arabic, together with these same verses translated into English, was our first volume of her work, The Poetry of Tahirih, published in 2002 by George Ronald.

That first volume consists primarily of the briefer more traditional passionate lyrics in the Sufi tradition. Among these pieces are plaints of longing to attain the presence of her Beloved, the Bab. Some of these poems are also lamentations for the suffering of the Babis, over twenty-thousand of whom met deaths of untold cruelty and humiliation. Other of the poems in the first volume contain celebrations in praise of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, whose advent she prophetically asserts will revive a fallen and bewildered humanity.

A second volume—Adam’s Wish: Unknown Poetry of Tahirih published in 2008— resulted from a most propitious find. We obtained a copy of the lengthy manuscript of Tahirih’s poems from Bijan Beizaie, son of renowned scholar Dhuka’i Beyzai, who originally submitted this volume to the Baha’i archives of Iran. This wonderful repository of her poetry and letters in the original calligraphy contains previously unpublished and largely unknown poems. These poems are more lengthy, industrious, more serious and complex.

In Adam’s Wish, we included only a handful of the longer more theological and philosophical poems, works entirely distinct from the briefer lyrics of the first volume. In truth, portions of the poems in Adam’s Wish have the tenor of a scholarly treatise as she examines the foundation for her most cherished theological and philosophical perspectives. In particular, she focuses on the eternal plan of God as manifest in the earlier dispensations of Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. These poems discuss in detail the timeliness and gradualness with which God successively educates humanity through the ages by means of His Manifestations whose periodic advent serves to elevate by degrees the human body politic.

In The Quickening, a third and final volume of Tahirih’s poetry, we included the remainder of the poems which, as the manuscript would have it, are indeed a most appropriate conclusion to the corpus of her poetry. As the title implies, these poems are dedicated to the announcement and celebration of the advent of the Day of Days, the spiritual reformation of human society long promised in all the previous revealed religions by all the Manifestation of God.

This volume of forty-two poems contains works of varied style and length, from brief two- or three-line pieces, to more formal and lengthy elucidations of what Tahirih portrays as a milestone in human history, the universal recognition of the essentially spiritual purpose of creation and of revealed religion as the motive force in the dynamic progress of human society. What distinguishes these poems from the works in the previous two collections is apparent from the beginning—a consistent tone and spirit of praise, exultation, and unleashed joy that we discover only occasionally in her other poetry.

Certainly it is clear that the calligraphers of the original manuscript included in this volume had direct access to Tahirih, or else to Bihjat—her confidant and the intermediary between the imprisoned poetess and her followers. Possibly they had access to someone else dear to Tahirih who would have had the collection of her work, including her as yet unpublished and untranslated letters.

Where there are excruciating periods of frustration, suffering, longing, and unquenched desire for transcendence in the first and second volumes, in Resurrection Day the poet seems mostly oblivious of self. In these poems, Tahirih is a source of divine insight and wisdom, and she asserts her station and capacity in this regard. She focuses her attention on announcing that the promised Manifestation alluded to by the Bab as “Him Whom God will make Manifest” (Baha’u’llah), has appeared, thus fulfilling the Day of Days wherein the peoples of the earth will be awakened, revitalized, and unified in a common understanding and appreciation of the Creator as the source of life and as the Overseer of all human endeavors.

Posted by

John & Amrollah

John S. Hatcher is Professor Emeritus in English Literature, a widely known author and speaker, and editor of the Wilfrid Laurier University Press Baha’i Series and the Journal of Baha’i Studies. His most recently published book is 'In the Beginning Was a Word: How Language Knits Reality Together'. Amrollah Hemmat, PhD, was born and educated in Tehran and is the co-author of four volumes of poetry translated from Persian and Arabic into English, as well as the author of books and educational material on Arabic grammar. He received an MS degree in applied behavioral science from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD in communication from the University of South Florida.
John & Amrollah

Discussion 6 Comments

Thank you so much for the wonderful Article about the Poetry from Tahirih. It made my Heard soar and I am so thankful to be a Baha’i and able to hear and feel Her.

Elisabeth Zillig-Goeltenboth

Elisabeth Zillig-Goeltenboth (March 3, 2020 at 10:08 PM)

This article is a highly significant and inspiring gateway to the poetry of this great woman. Thank you.

Michael V Day

Michael V Day (March 3, 2020 at 10:11 PM)

Thank You So Much for this article
I present Radio Bahai each Sunday Night 8pm -10pm sTREAMING lIVE FRPM FLEURIEUFM.ORG
We will include your article next Sunday 15th March 89.7-94.3FM
South Australia
Blessings Marlena Bloomfield

Marlena Bloomfield

Marlena Bloomfield (March 3, 2020 at 10:19 PM)

Brilliant. Thanks for this post. I look forward to reading more of Tahirih’s translated poetry!

June Perkins

June Perkins (March 3, 2020 at 3:17 AM)

May be you can make an e-book of all the works -collected or individual ones as you see fit.

Arindam Ghosh

Arindam Ghosh (August 8, 2020 at 7:54 PM)

LUA (love you all).

Francoise Carisse

Francoise Carisse (January 1, 2022 at 4:22 AM)

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