ʿONṢORI, Abu’l-Qāsem Ḥasan b. Aḥmad (b. Balkh, ca. 961; d. Ḡazna, 1039), celebrated Persian poet of the early Ghaznavid period. He was the poet laureate (malek-al-šoʿarāʾ, amir-al-šoʿarāʾ) at the court of the Ghaznavid Sultan Maḥmud (r. 998-1030) and has been particularly noted and praised for his panegyric odes (qaṣidas), in which his masterful use of rhetorical embellishments and measured diction have been referred to as models of elegant poetical composition (see, e.g., ʿAwfi, II, p. 29; Foruzānfar, pp. 113-14; Arberry, pp. 54-55; for different views see below). ʿOnṣori belonged to the inner circle of the court and, according to Dawlatšāh, other poets had to submit their works to him for approval before they could be presented to the king (Browne, p. 120). ʿOnṣori’s sharp criticism of a poem that the poet Ḡażāʾeri Rāzi had sent to Ḡazna points to the position of the former as the poets’ only means of access to Sultan Maḥmud (ʿOnṣori, Divān, pp. 179-84; Ṣafā, 1959, pp. 570-73). His distinction as the preeminent master poet of the time is evident in a qaṣida by Manučehri Dāmˊgāni, who referred to him as the Masters’ Master of the age (ustād-e ustādān-e zamāna), and more than a century later Ḵāqāni Šarvāni would compose a poem in praise of himself contrasting his own life of hardships with the comfort and luxury that ʿOnṣori enjoyed, evidently in response to an associate who had made a remark about ʿOnṣori’s superior poetical skills (Manučehri, p. 72; Ḵāqāni, pp. 926-27).
Our knowledge of ʿOnṣori is limited to some sparse references in the works of later authors. We know that he was still alive on the ʿId al-feṭr of 422/21 September 1031, when he received a lavish reward from Sultan Masʿud I (Bayhaqi, pp. 359-60). According to Dawlatšāh (p. 18), ʿOnṣori was a student of the poet Abu’l-Faraj Sejzi, which is unlikely. The story, found in the Persian version of Abu ʿAli Tanuḵi’s Faraj baʿd al-šadda and taken at face value by some scholars of Persian literature (e.g. Ṣafā, 1959, p. 559; Šafaq, p. 152), of how ʿOnṣori lost all his fortune as a young man in a robbery during a commercial trip, has no historical merit. The erroneous association of the story to ʿOnṣori is based on the misreading of the name ʿAbqasi in the Arabic original for ʿOnṣori (see Storey and de Blois, pp. 234-35; Tanuḵi, tr., II, pp. 911-15). Likewise, the anecdote about ʿOnṣori and two other Ghaznavid poets testing Ferdowsi’s poetical skills (Mostawfi, p. 738; Brown, II, p. 129) is nothing but a fanciful legend. ʿOnṣori started as a professional poet in the retinue of Amir Abu’l-Moẓaffar Naṣr, Sultan Maḥmud’s brother and the military commander (sepahsālār) of Khorasan, who introduced him to the royal court in Ḡazna. There his outstanding poetic talent was soon recognized and he received the highest distinction as a poet with the title malek al-šoʿarāʾ (or amir al-šʿarāʾ), apparently the first Persian poet to receive such an honorific. He joined the circle of the king’s boon companions (nadim), accompanied him on his military expeditions, and immortalized his exploits in poetry, thereby becoming the recipient of lavish royal largesse (for a seemingly exaggerated note about his wealth, see Hedāyat, p. 897; cf. Ḵāqāni, pp. 926-27; Foruzānfar, p. 118). The story of how ʿOnṣori, with an improvised quatrain, was able to cheer up Sultan Maḥmud, who had fallen into a very angry mood because, in a drunken stupor, he had cut the hair of his favorite page Ayāz, is a clear indication of ʿOnṣori’s favored status at the court. He was rewarded for the quatrain with three mouthfuls of jewelry (Neẓāmi ʿArużi, text, pp. 55-57, comm., pp. 175-76; cf. a similar story in Mostawfi, p. 739). ʿOnṣori remained in the service of the Ghaznavids after the death of Sultan Maḥmud, at least until September 1031, when he was awarded one thousand dinars for his poem on the occasion of the ʿId al-feṭr celebration under Sultan Masʿud I (Bayhaqi, pp. 359-60). His good fortune under the Ghaznavid was matched, according to Moḥammad ʿAwfi, (II, p. 69), only by Rudaki and Amir Moʿezzi at the Samanid and Saljuq courts, respectively.
According to Dawlatšāh, ʿOnṣori’s divān (collected poems) comprised some 30,000 verses (Dawlatšāh, p. 53; Hedāyat, II, p. 897), of which only about 12 percent has survived through anthologies and quotations for evidence spread in works such as Loḡat-e Fors of Asadi Ṭusi. The latest edition by Moḥammad Dabirsiāqi contains a total of 3,519 verses, including 70 odes (qaṣida), 76 quatrains (robāʿi), and a good number of isolated lines and fragments, besides two odes, a riddle, and some stray verses that are attributed to him and published at the end of the Divān (pp. 371-76).
ʿOnṣori is also credited by ʿAwfi (II, p. 32) with the composition of three romantic epics, entitled Šād-baḥroʿAyn-al-ḥayāt, Wāmeq o ʿAḏrā, and Ḵeng-bot o Sorḵ-bot. They were all considered lost until portions and isolated verses were found or recovered from a variety of sources. Saʿid Nafisi collected 141 verses of Wāmeq o ʿAḏrā that were used as evidence in Persian dictionaries, and 372 more verses were unexpectedly discovered by Moḥammad Šafiʿ in the binding of an old manuscript. It is originally a Greek love story, as clearly indicated by the use of Greek names. It was also translated into Arabic by Abu Rayḥān Biruni (Foruzānfar, pp. 115-16; Storey and de Blois, pp. 232-33). ʿOnṣori’s version was translated in the 16th century into Turkish by Shaikh Maḥmud Lāmeʿi at the request of Soltan Solaymān (Gibb, III, pp. 21-22). Of Ḵeng-bot and Sorḵ-bot, originally an Indian story about the two giant Buddha statues in Bāmiān, we have only two verses that were recovered by Saʿid Nafisi, and of the Šād-bahr o ʿAyn-al-ḥayāt about fifty-seven verses are quoted in Asadi’s Loḡat-e Fors. Both of the last two stories were translated into Arabic by Biruni (Foruzānfar, pp. 116-17).
ʿOnṣori was primarily a master craftsman of panegyric odes, in whose poems every single verse is composed with words judiciously selected and adorned with suitable rhetorical devices in almost perfect symmetry and amazing fluency of language, but on the whole devoid of any sign of real feeling or inner artistic experience. His exceptional dexterity is most evident when he makes the transition from a description of nature or a riddle to the panegyric theme of ode (e.g., Divān, pp. 24, 32-33), a case of which Arthur J. Arberry has characterized as “a miracle of mesmeric eloquence” (Arberry, p. 55; ʿOnṣori, Divān, pp. 247-50). He recounted all Maḥmud’s military expeditions in an ode of over 150 verses, which is often mentioned as a perfect example of his mastery in combining measured diction with euphonic embellishments, without giving way to verbosity or ambiguous metaphors (Divān, pp. 125-43). He was well versed in the works of great Arab poets, particularly Motanabbi, whose influence and occasional adaptation of imagery or direct borrowings from him are discernible in some of his odes (Foruzānfar, p. 113; Ṣafā, 1959, p. 562; Šafiʿi Kadkani, pp. 421-22). His lyric poetry, however, leaves a good deal to be desired. He himself admitted his shortcomings in this domain, conceding that the lyrics composed by him were not as desirable as those of Rudaki (Divān, p. 327). Ḵāqāni (p. 926, vv. 4, 8) criticized him for being merely a panegyrist, and Šafiʿi Kadkani (p. 420) referred to him as a poet who, due to his lack of “poetic vision and emotional experience” (did-e šeʿri wa tajreba-ye ḥessi), tried with some success to cover his inability to create poetic imagery with craftsmanship (for a harsh criticism of ʿOnṣori that occasionally takes the tone of personal attack, see Moṣaffā; for a different view, see Foruzānfar, pp. 112-14; Ṣafā, 1959, p. 562; Arberry, pp. 54-55).
Some of ʿOnṣori’s poems have been translated into Western languages, for instance, a partial rendering of an ode in praise of Maḥmud’s brother, Amir Naṣr (Browne, pp. 121-23, Pers. text in Divān, pp. 7-9) and the Italian and French translations of selected poems (Lazard et al., pp. 89-92; Bargili, ed., tr. and Pers. texts).
For editions and manuscripts, see Storey and de Blois.
Arthur John Arberry, Classical Persian Literature, London, 1958, pp. 54-56; tr. P. Asad-Allāh Āzād as Adabiyāt-e kelāsik-e Irān, Mashad, 1992, p. 86.
Moḥammad ʿAwfi, Lobāb al-albāb, ed. Edward G. Browne and Moḥammad Qazvini, 2 vols., London, 1906, I, pp. 28-33; ed. Sažid Nafisi, Tehran, 1956, p. 301.
Rita Bargili, ed., Ricciolî in ʿUnṣurî e Farruḫî, Quaderni del Seminario di iranistica, uralo-altaistica e caucasologia dell Università degli studi di Venezia 21/2, Venice, 1983 (Italian tr. of selected poems).
Abu’l-Fażl Bayhaqi, Tāriḵ-e masʿudi, ed. ʿAli-Akbar Fayyāż, Mashad, 1971, pp. 360, 372, 496, 924.
Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia II, Cambridge, repr. 1956, pp. 121-23.
ʿAbd-al-ʿAli Datḡayb, “ʿOnṣori šāʿer-e qaṣidapardāz,” Payām-e novin, 6/10, 1965, pp. 1-17.
Dawlatšāh Samarqandi, Taḏkerat al-šoʿarāʾ, ed. Moḥammad ʿAbbāsi, Tehran, 1958, pp. 18, 44, 50, 53.
Zāheda Efteḵār, ʿOnṣori wa maqām-e udar adabiyāt-e fārsi, Islamabad, 1999, pp. 2-5, 16-19, 50-68, 75-80, 98, 109-116.
Nasṛ-Allāh Falsafi, Haštmaqāla-ye tāriḵi wa adabi, Tehran, 1951, p. 165.
Badiʿ-al-Zamān Foruzānfar, Soḵan wa soḵanvarān, Tehran, 1971, pp. 112-20.
E. J. W. Gibb, A History of Ottoman Poetry, 5 vols., London, 1963-67, III, pp. 21-22.
Reżāqoli Khan Hedāyat, Majmaʿ al-foṣaḥā, ed. Mażāher Moṣaffā, 6 vols., Tehran, II, pp. 897-920 (includes a good number of his poems).
Parviz Nātel Ḵānlari, “Wāmeq o ʿAḏrā-ye ʿOnṣori wa Šāh-nāma-ye Ferdowsi,” Soḵan 21, 1971, pp. 433-41.
Zahrā Ḵānlari, Farhang-e adabiyāt-e fārsi, Tehran, 1987, pp. 352-53.
Afżal-al-Din Badil Ḵāqāni Šarvāni, Divān, ed. Żiāʾ-al-Din Sajjādi, Tehran, 1995, pp. 926-27.
Gilbert Lazard (see Ṣafā, 1960-61). Shaikh Maḥmud b. ʿOṯmān Lāmeʿi, tr., Wāmeq u ʿAḏrā, tr. Joseph Hammer-Purgstall as Wamik und Asra: das ist, Der Glühende und die Blühende. Das älteste persische romantische Gedicht, Vienna, 1833 (a rather free tr. of the Turk. version).
Moḥammad-Jaʿfar Maḥjub, Sabk-e ḵorāsāni dar šeʿr-e fārsi, Tehran, 1966, p. 181.
Idem, “Wāmeq o ʿAḏrā-ye ʿOnṣori,” Soḵān 18, 1968, pp. 43-52, 131-42.
Manučehri Dāmˊgāni, Divān, ed. Moḥammad Dabirsiāqi, Tehran, 1984, pp. 70-78.
Maẓāher Moṣaffā, Pāsdārān-e soḵan, Tehran, 1956, pp. 92-158 (includes substantial samples of ʿOnṣori’s poetry and some statistic information).
Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi, Tāriḵ-e gozida, ed. ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Navāʾi, Tehran, 1960, pp. 738-39.
Neẓāmi ʿArużi Samarqandi, Čahār maqāla, ed. Moḥammad Qazvini, rev. ed. with commentaries by Moḥammad Moʿin, Tehran, 1954, text, pp. 56-57.
Abu’l-Qāsem Ḥasan Onṣori, Divān, ed. Yaḥyā Qarib, Tehran, 1963; ed. Moḥammad Dabirsiāqi, Tehran, 1984 (with notes, commentaries, and poet’s biography).
Idem, Wāmeq o ʿAḏrā, ed. Mawlawi Moḥammad Šafiʿ, Lahor, 1967, pp. 2-9 (Turk. tr. by Lāmeʿi).
M. N. Osmanov, Chastotniĭ slovar Unsuri, Moscow, 1970 (glossary of ʿOnṣori’s poetry based on Dabirsiāqi’s 1st ed.) reviewed by Šāyesta Adab, “Vāža-nāma-ye basāmadi-e Divān-e ʿOnṣori,” MDAT 18/3, 1971, pp. 153-61.
Moḥammad b. ʿOmar Rāduyāni, Tarjomān al-balāga, ed. Ahmed Ateş, Istanbul, 1949.
Jan Rypka, History of Iranian Literature, Dordrecht, 1968, pp. 172-74.
Ḏabiḥ-Allāh Ṣafā, Tāriḵ-e adabiyāt-e dar Irān I, Tehran, 1959, pp. 559-67.
Idem, Ganj-e soḵan: šāʿerān-e bozorg-e pārsiguy wa montaḵab-e ašʿār-e ānān, 3 vols., Tehran, 1960-61, I, pp. 114-23; tr. Gilbert Lazard, Roger Lescot, and Henri Massé, trs., Anthologie de la poésie persane xi -xx siècle, Paris, 1964.
Ṣādeq Reżāzāda Šafaq, Tāriḵ-e adabiyāt-e Irān, Tehran, 1973, pp. 152-57.
Moḥammad-Reżā Šafiʿi Kadkani, Ṣowar-e ḵiāl dar šeʿr-e fārsi, Tehran, 1971, pp. 420-31.
Moḥammad Šibli Noʿmāni, Šeʿr al-ʿAjam, tr. Moḥammad-Taqi Faḵr Dāʿi Gilāni, 4 vols., Tehran, 1956, I, pp. 47-56.
C. A. Storey and François de Blois, Persian Literature; a Bio-bibliographical Survey V/1, London, 1999. pp. 232-37.
Abu ʿAli Moḥassen Tanuḵi, Faraj baʿd al-šadda, tr. Asʿad Dehestāni as Faraj-e baʿd az šaddat, ed. Esmāʿil Ḥākemi, 2 vols., Tehran, n.d.
Bo Utas, “Did ʿAdhrā Remain a Virgin?,” Orientalia Suecana 33-35, 1984-86, pp. 429-44.
ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Zarrinkub, Sayr-i dar šeʿr-e fārsi, Tehran, 1984, pp. 20-21.
Originally Published: April 7, 2008
Last Updated: April 7, 2008