Theses Doctoral

The Political Aesthetic of the Medieval Persian Prison Poem, 1100-1200

Gould, Rebecca

The Political Aesthetic of the Medieval Persian Prison Poem, 1100-1200 traces the dissemination of the medieval Persian prison poem (habsiyyat) from South Asia to the Caucasus in the context of the contemporaneous developments in literary and political theory that shaped this genre. Varying attitudes towards figuration in Persian literary criticism are examined in terms of an aesthetics of incarceration that, I argue, extended the political boundaries of medieval Persian literary culture. Drawing on the pioneering works of Zafari (1985) and Akimushkina (2006), I elucidate the prison poem's strategies for making the medieval experience of incarceration available to literary representation. In documenting the dialectic between the sultan's material power and the poet's discursive sovereignty, I show how medieval Persian prison poetry critically engaged with medieval punitive practices. Ultimately, this dissertation traces the relation between the increased use of incarceration as a mode of punishment by regional sultanates and the discursive elevation of poetry that is Persian literature's greatest contribution to world literature. Concomitantly with investigating the twelfth-century aesthetics of incarceration, this dissertation documents how twelfth-century Persian poetry was transformed by idioms of literary knowledge articulated through a Persianized Arabo-Islamic rhetoric. Exegeses of specific prison poems by Mas'ud Sa'd Salman of Lahore (d. 1121), Khaqani Shirwani (d. 1199), and of other prison poets from these regions, are offered alongside documentary explorations into the status of non-Muslim minorities in Saljuq domains, the transformation of a predominantly panegyric genre into an instrument of political critique, and demonstrate the political importance of the habsiyyat to the historiography of incarceration as well as of Persian literature. By examining the literary archive of incarceration from Lahore in South Asia to Shirwan in the Caucasus, this study aims to expand the scope of investigations into the aesthetics of power as registered by literary form, to extend the temporal dimensions of the historiography of incarceration, and to contribute to classical Persian literary theory's conceptualization of genre. Chapter one offers a synoptic and global history of incarceration in the medieval world. Chapter two considers what the prison poem as a genre has to offer global literary theory. Chapter three studies the complex modulation of the qasida form through the prison poem's emphasis on the poet's lyric subjectivity. Chapter four traces the appropriation of the motifs of prophecy by Persian prison poets who aspired for a sovereignty that exceeding the boundaries of material power. Chapter five offers detailed exegeses of the two most significant texts in the medieval Persian archive of incarceration: Khaqani's Christian qasida and his qasida on the ruins of Mada'in. Chapter six documents the devolution of authority onto prison poetry and the reconstitution of material power through discursive sovereignty. Collectively, these chapters show that, just as medieval Persian prison poets protested the terms of their social contracts and thus suffered imprisonment, so did the prison poem genre contest the distribution of sovereignty in the medieval world by transferring prophecy, and prophecy's concomitant authority, to the poet.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Pollock, Sheldon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2013