Vis & Ramin

A masterpiece told in a language that is lush, sensual and highly inventive


Vis & Ramin
by Dick Davis (Translator)

Vis & Ramin
by Fakhraddin Gorgani
Translated by Dick Davis
2008, Mage Publishers >>> Details
$45; 576 pages

About the book, the author, and the translator
Vis & Ramin is one of the world’s great love stories. It was the first major Persian romance, written between 1050 and 1055 in rhyming couplets. This remarkable work has now been superbly translated into heroic couplets (the closest metrical equivalent of the Persian) by the poet and scholar Dick Davis and published by Mage Publishers.

Vis and Ramin had immense influence on later Persian poetry and is very probably also the source for the tale of Tristan and Isolde, which first appeared in Europe about a century later.

The plot, complex yet powerfully dramatic, revolves around royal marital customs unfamiliar to us today. Shahru, the married queen of Mah, refuses an offer of marriage from King Mobad of Marv but promises that if she bears a daughter she will give the child to him as a bride. She duly bears a daughter, Vis, who is brought up by a nurse in the company of Mobad’s younger brother Ramin. By the time Vis reaches the age of marriage, Shahru has forgotten her promise and instead weds her daughter to Vis’s older brother, Viru. The next day brother Zard arrives to demand the bride, and fighting breaks out, during which Vis’s father is killed. Mobad then bribes to hand Vis over to him. Mobad’s brother Ramin escorts Vis to her new husband and falls in love with her on the way. Vis has no love for and turns to her old nurse for help....

Told in language that is lush, sensual and highly inventive, Vis and Ramin is a masterpiece of psychological perceptiveness and characterization: Shahru is worldly and venal, the nurse resourceful and amoral (she will immediately remind Western readers of the nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), Vis high-spirited and determined, Ramin impetuous and volatile. And the hopeless psychological situation of Vis’s husband, Mobad, flickers wearily from patience to self-assertion to fury and back again. The origins of Vis and Ramin, are obscure. The story dates from the time of the Parthians (who ruled Persia from the third century bce to the third century ce), and certainly existed in oral and perhaps written form before the eleventh century Persian poet Fakhraddin Gorgani composed the version that has come down to us.

Very little is known with any certainty about Gorgani. His name suggests that he (or his family) was from the town of Gorgan to the east of the Caspian, and his frequent references to Gorgan in Vis and Ramin perhaps confirm this. He wrote his great romance, Vis and Ramin, in Isfahan, at some time between 1050 and 1055, when he was a member of the retinue of the local ruler.

Dick Davis lived for eight years in Iran (1970–78), as well as for periods in Greece and Italy. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Professor of Persian at Ohio State University. He is also a noted poet and is considered the greatest translator of Persian poetry.

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Excerpt from the Introduction to Vis and Ramin, by Dick Davis:

The Social World of Vis and Ramin
The first thing that strikes any reader of Vis and Ramin is the very peculiar nature of the marriage customs that seem to be in place at the beginning of the poem. These customs are (and were in Gorgani’s time) as bizarre to Middle Eastern readers as to Western readers, as they belong not only to the Zoroastrianism of two millennia ago, but also to the marriage customs of the pre-Islamic Persian royal dynasties. Marriages that are now universally regarded as incestuous were relatively common among the pre-Islamic dynasties of Iran, and were even seen as especially praiseworthy.  In the ancient world, royal incest was of course not unique to Iran; it was also common in the Egyptian royal dynasties, and the pharaohs were usually married to their own sisters. The brother-sister marriage that comes near the opening of Vis and Ramin, and generates much of the subsequent plot, is taken by the poet simply as a norm within the society out of which the story comes. The custom will have been as strange for Gorgani as it is for us, but he gives no hint of being in any way troubled by it; he has clearly decided to accept, without judgment, the tale as he has received it. The erotic relationships within the poem stay highly endogamous: the lovers, Ramin and Vis, share the same wet nurse, which makes them a kind of honorary brother and sister, a relationship recognized within the culture as being equivalent to that of siblings; and Ramin is the younger brother of Vis’s husband, Mobad.

The society Gorgani invokes in Vis and Ramin is almost entirely a courtly one. The characters in the poem are members of major or minor royal families, or they are the servants of such families. Power and pleasure are central preoccupations both of the characters and of the poet, and a great deal of time is spent in feasting, gift giving, hunting, and making war, all of which are done on a lavish scale; almost every aspect of life involves displays of vast amounts of wealth. Certainly this princely opulence is to some degree fantastic, but for as long as the Persian princely courts have existed they have been known as centers of great wealth and luxury. From Herodotus to Shakespeare the almost unimaginable splendor of Persian courtly life was a constant theme of Western writers who mentioned the country, and although the quantities of precious goods that Gorgani describes are surely a great exaggeration of what was available in any given center of power, there can be no doubt that when he describes gold, silver, jewels, brocade, silk, ermine, musk, ambergris, as well as less remarkable but still highly valued items like crystal and sugar, he knows what he is talking about. In surrounding his royal characters with such luxuries he is exaggerating conditions that had long been a reality in Persian aristocratic culture, rather than inventing a fantasy world out of whole cloth.

The emphasis on pleasure can be seen partly as a survival from Zoroastrianism, the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran. Until Zoroastrianism was modified by Manicheism, physical pleasure was seen as a gift of the good principle of life, Ahura Mazda, and gratitude for its presence and its assiduous cultivation were seen virtually as religious duties. This partly accounts for the importance given to wine drinking in the poem. It’s clear from both Vis and Ramin and a number of other texts that are contemporary with it that excessive wine drinking was associated with the pre-Islamic courts of Iran, and that, despite the triumph of Islam, the custom had continued to flourish in courtly circles, especially in eastern Iran, which seems to have hung on to its pre-Islamic roots more assiduously than most other areas of the country. Wine drinking to the point of drunkenness is expected of the members of the court in Gorgani’s poem (almost every time we see the king go to bed, the fact that he is drunk is mentioned, and there is usually no implication that this is a reprehensible state for him to be in). Constant wine drinking is also one of the main occupations of the lovers, Vis and Ramin, whenever they are together, and Eros and wine become inextricably linked as the story develops. The pleasure that is given most emphasis in the poem is of course erotic pleasure, and the nurse’s frank statement to Vis that she can have no idea of what real happiness is until she has experienced sexual pleasure is made with an impatience that implies that morality, and all questions of how and with whom one might experience this pleasure, are fairly minor concerns:


You’ve never truly slept with any man.
You’ve had no joy of men, you’ve never known
A man whom you could really call your own . . .
What use is beauty if it doesn’t bless
Your life with pleasure and love’s happiness?
You’re innocent, you’re in the dark about it,
You don’t know how forlorn life is without it.
Women were made for men, dear Vis, and you

Are not exempt, whatever you might do.


And to make quite sure that Vis knows what she is talking about, the nurse goes on to add:


God made us so that nothing’s lovelier than
What we as women feel when with a man,
And you don’t know how vehemently sweet
The pleasure is when men and women meet;
If you make love just once, I know that then
You won’t hold back from doing so again.


As in the literary representations of most courtly worlds, along with pleasure comes protocol, and the backbiting that accompanies slips in protocol; as her nurse says to Vis at one point:


................................ Surely you see
You’re going to have to act appropriately.
There are a hundred things we have to do
Simply because the world expects us to;


This is a very hothouse world, and if the opportunities for pleasure are numerous and varied so are the opportunities for disgrace. Associated with the currency of one’s good name is the fairly frequent invocation of chivalry, especially by Ramin, as an ideal of behavior. An aspect of the poem that is perhaps startling at first, given the emphasis on courtly protocol, chivalry, and correct behavior, but which has clear parallels in Western medieval narratives that deal with the same kind of world, is the validation of adultery. The nurse’s admonitions to Vis, once her charge has realized she is married to someone for whom she feels no affection, are given with cynical insouciance:


The well-born women of the world delight
In marrying a courtier or a knight,
And some, who have a husband, also see
A special friend who’s sworn to secrecy;
She loves her husband, she embraces him,
And then her happy friend replaces him.


Certainly here the nurse is speaking in defiance of the poem’s conventional morality, to which due lip service is paid by the poet, and to which more than lip service is paid by Vis, at least until she finds herself helplessly and hopelessly in love, but the plot bears out the nurse’s version of what matters in life, not conventional morality’s. In theory, women belong to their parents and their husbands, but in reality much of the poem’s energy is spent on depicting the inner life of a woman rebelling against this inherited notion of how she should spend her life. And Gorgani is obviously in sympathy with his heroine; he condemns her mother’s promise of her as a bride to someone before she is even born, and he asks the reader to forgive Vis her transgressions against conventional morality, saying they were a part of God’s plan for her. We see a parallel situation in the economic world of the poem. Again, in theory the poem takes place in a quasi-feudal, gift-giving culture, in which wealth comes to the king through tribute, conquest, and taxation, and to his subjects through his patronage. But commerce, the production by artisans of luxury goods, and the risks of individual economic endeavor are constantly alluded to in the poem’s metaphors, and the wealth of the court includes a great many foreign items (central Asian furs and scents, Chinese silks, Chinese and Western [Byzantine?] paintings, western locks and keys) that have clearly been acquired by means of the camel caravans and mule trains of traded goods to which allusion is also made. In both the erotic and economic spheres we see a traditional top-down, hierarchical structure being modified, and to some extent subverted, by individual aspirations and enterprise. Vis is happy to subvert the old order when she breaks her marriage vows to her husband, but when her lover Ramin breaks his promise to her and marries another woman, she reproaches him with an image that unites the dangers of such new-found erotic and commercial individualism: she says he is


…like a gold coin journeying through the land
By constant passages from hand to hand.


It will be clear to readers of Western medieval literature that the world Gorgani depicts is very close to that of say Chrétien de Troyes and other writers of European chivalric romances; something that should be kept in mind though, when making such natural comparisons, is the date of Gorgani’s poem. It is certainly true that the court setting, chivalry, obsessive love-longing, and the validation of adultery that are present in Gorgani’s poem can all be found in European medieval romances. But in the fully developed state in which we find them in Vis and Ramin, they do not appear in a European context until well over a century after Vis and Ramin was written. The courtly sophistication of Vis and Ramin, and the subtlety of its extensive analyses of psychological inwardness, particularly as regards the heroine, are barely adumbrated in European literature of the eleventh century; for someone who is conscious of this time lag it seems indisputable that there must have been some transfer of Middle Eastern literary preoccupations and techniques to the West, during the intervening century, in order to facilitate such a similar literary efflorescence in the lands of Christendom. And of course the intervening century in question includes the period of the early crusades, and the emergence of a heightened consciousness of the presence of a highly developed cultural alternative to Christian Europe, lying just beyond its eastern and southern boundaries.

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Excerpt from Vis & Ramin:


I found an ancient tale that men recite
To while away the watches of the night.

There lived a king once, long ago, who reigned
In glory; all he wanted he obtained,
And petty rulers bowed before his throne,
Subservient to this happy king alone,
Whose dignity and splendor seemed to rise
Beyond the radiance of the turning skies.
Korah’s and Kasra’s? fabled opulence
Did not approach this king’s magnificence;
He was a lion in war, and in largesse
An April cloud that rained down happiness.
What banquets and festivities this king
Would hold at court to celebrate the spring,
With noblemen as guests from every town
And women of great beauty and renown,
From Rey, Gorgan, Shiraz, and Khorasan,
Azerbaijan and distant Isfahan;
Bahram, Roham from Ardebil, Viru,
Ramin, Daylam’s Goshasp, and Shapur too
From great Gilan were there, and with the king
Was Zard, his confidant in everything,
His brother, his most trusted minister,
First of his courtiers, and his counselor.

The king sat in his court surrounded by
His nobles like the full moon in the sky
Among its stars. None equaled him in fame
Or regal radiance; this sovereign’s name
Was King Mobad, and from his eyes there shone
Light like the world-illuminating sun.
His nobles were like lions ranged in rows,
The women of the court like graceful does,
The lions gazed with longing, and the deer
Bravely returned their stares and showed no fear.
Goblets went round, all filled with brimming wine,
Like suns that passed from sign to stellar sign,
And blossoms settled on the throng as though
Gold coins were scattered to a crowd below.
A cloud of burning musk filled all the air,
As fragrant as a lovely woman’s hair,
Musicians drank and sang, and told their tales,
And roses heard the plaint of nightingales.
The king’s court rang with joy, and far and wide
Festivities filled all the countryside.
Men went out from their homes to celebrate
The advent of the spring’s auspicious date,
And varied melodies were heard to rise
From every plain and meadow to the skies.
So many flowers now thronged the earth, the sight
Was like the star-strewn canopy of night.
Now everyone wore tulips in their hair,
In every palm a wine cup nestled there,
Some rode their Arab horses through the day,
Some sang and danced their weary cares away,
Some drank their wine surrounded by sweet roses,
Some went out in the meadows picking posies,
And everywhere the spring’s new blossoms made
The earth as lovely as a rich brocade.
The king joined in their pleasures, riding on
An elephant whose splendid trappings shone
With silver, gold, and jewels, so that it seemed
To be a glittering sea that glowed and gleamed.
Horsemen preceded him across the plain,
And after him there came a varied train
Of litters and bright palanquins, which brought
The lovely women of the royal court;
And as he went he scattered his largesse,
Bestowing justice, wealth, and happiness.
(This is how one should live; try if you can
To give enjoyment to your fellow man,
Neither the generous or the mean survive,
So spread what joy you can while you’re alive.)
A happy week went by, and everywhere
The king proceeded, pleasure too was there.

The women looking on at the king’s court
Among the noble, watching women who
Accompanied the monarch was Shahru,
The lovely, well-born queen of Mahabad;
Azerbaijan had sent Sarv-e Azad,
The beautiful Abnush came from Gorgan,
And Naz Delbar was there from Dehestan,
From Rey both Dinargis and Zaringis,
From Kuhestan Shirin and Farangis.
From Isfahan two radiant sisters came,
Abnaz was one, Nahid the other’s name;
Golab and Yaseman had each been brought there
(Their fathers were both ministers at court there),
The charming child of Saveh’s noble king
Arrived, and in her radiance shamed the spring,
Naz, Azergun, Golgun, whose faces’ glow
Was like a blood-red blush suffusing snow,
All these were there, together with Sahi,
The king’s wife, splendid in her dignity,
Whose body was like silver, and whose face
Rivaled the moonlight in its lovely grace.
A thousand serving girls, with violet tresses
And jasmine breasts, attended these princesses –
Girls who were Western, Turkish, or Chinese,
As elegant as slender cypress trees;
Their waists were girt with gold and jewels, and on
Their heads bright diadems discreetly shone.
Among these women come from far and wide,
Strutting like hawks and peacocks in their pride,
Whose lovely doe-like eyes seemed made to slay
The lions that pursued them as their prey,
The loveliest of all the beauties who
Adorned this great assembly was Shahru;
A cypress in her slender elegance,
Topped by the sun in its magnificence,
Whose ruby lips hid shining pearls, whose dress
And face competed in their loveliness,
Two marvels side by side, as each one made
The other seem the lovelier brocade.
Her lips were sugar, and each tooth a gem,
Her words as if sweet sugar coated them,
Two scented braids descended from her crown,
Two looped and twisted chains cascading down
Where fifty tumbling musky ringlets chased
Each other to beneath her lovely waist.
Her eyes like two narcissi seemed to be
The home of witchcraft and dark sorcery.
A moon of beauty when she sat and talked,
A moving cypress when she stood and walked,
The breeze of spring felt shame before her face,
The scent of aloes wood shrank in disgrace
Before her fragrant hair; a jewel arrayed
In jewels, both silver and bright gold were made
More lovely by her wearing them, though she
Was beautiful without their sophistry.

Mobad makes a proposal to Shahru,
and she makes him a promise

One day it happened that Mobad, by chance,
Was smitten by this full moon’s radiance,
This silver cypress tree, this idol who
Seemed always smiling and was named Shahru,
And had her summoned to his royal throne
And sat her there beside him, quite alone.
He gave her roses, whose bright pinkness glowed
With all the colors that her cheeks now showed,
And kindly, softly, with repeated smiles,
With happy, hesitant, flirtatious wiles,
He said to her, “Your beauty makes me see
How wonderful time spent with you would be;
Now, if you will agree to share your life
With me here, as my friend or as my wife,
I’ll share my realm with you, we’ll never part,
Since you’re more precious to me than my heart.
I’ll stand before you as your slave, I’ll bow
Before you as the world does to me now.
From all the earth I’ve chosen you, and I
Will look on you with love until I die.
I’ll sacrifice my heart and soul for you,
Whatever you might order me, I’ll do.
If you stay with me day and night, each night
Will be a day for me, imbued with light,
And if I see your face continually
Each day will be the first of spring for me.”

When Shahru heard the king she smiled and said,
“Why should such fancies fill your royal head?
Besides, my lord, I am not worthy of
The friendship that you offer, or your love.
And since I’m married to another man
I could not even think of such a plan,
And I’m a mother too. My sons have grown
To be fine princes, worthy of a throne,
The best of them’s Viru, and he can fight
Successfully against a mammoth’s might.
You never saw me in my youth, it’s then
That I was worthy to be loved by men!
How sweet I was, how ready for romance,
A stately cypress in my elegance;
But now the wind has robbed my braided hair
Of all the lovely scents that lingered there.
The sun and moon no longer shine for me,
Though, in my spring, I was a willow tree
That flourishes by gently flowing streams:
But all that’s passed now, gone like vanished dreams.
Once, where I walked, the scent of jasmine stayed
For years before its strength began to fade;
My beauty captured kings then, and my breath
Brought men back, living, from the throes of death.
My life has reached its autumn now; I see
The spring, and all its sweetness, snatched from me.
My skin is sere, and in my musky hair
Strands of white camphor can be counted there,
My face has lost its charm, adversity
Has bent my body’s crystal cypress tree.
And it is worse than shameful to pretend
One’s young still when one’s life is near its end;
If I behaved like someone young despite
My age, I would be loathsome in your sight.”

Mobad replied, “I wish the mother who
Bore such a lovely speaking moon as you
All joy, and sweet, delicious food; and long
May where you grew be prosperous and strong.
You are so lovely in old age, in truth
What were you in the springtime of your youth?
If this is now the withered flower, I say
A thousand blessings on you every day,
And when it was in bud, how many men
Whose hearts were stolen must have loved you then!
If you won’t be my lover and my wife,
If you won’t grant me happiness and life,
Give me your daughter; may her jasmine be
United with this stalwart, noble tree,
For any child you bear must be, like you,
As white and sweet as jasmine, dear Shahru,
And in my palace, when all’s said and done,
I’ll have the splendor of the shining sun;
If I’ve the sun of love here, why should I
Care for the sun that occupies the sky?”

Shahru replied, “A better son-in-law
I never thought of and I never saw:
If I’d a daughter in my house, my lord,
I’d know my duty then, you have my word,
But I have none. If I give birth to one,
I’ll give her to you; you will be my son.”
Mobad was overjoyed, and hand in hand
They swore an oath that none could countermand.
On silk, in musk diluted with rose water,
They wrote that if Shahru should have a daughter
All other suitors would be set aside:
Only Mobad could claim her as his bride.
See now what troubles came of this, that they
Had fixed an unborn daughter’s wedding day.



Thanks for the intro

by Abarmard on

Thanks for this nice intro. Hopefully I'll get a chance to read it. JJ don't go buying this book knowing that you will give it away later ;)

Ari Siletz

Vanity or Ta'arof?

by Ari Siletz on

"And it is worse than shameful to pretend One’s young still when one’s life is near its end;

If I behaved like someone young despite

My age, I would be loathsome in your sight."

Did the middle aged Shahru just refuse the splendid king Mobad simply to hang on to her mystique? Or has this beautiful married woman become expert at ta'arofing her way out  of awkward propositions?

 Either way, my heart is already hers to break. Thank you, Mr Davis, for your sensitive and intelligent translation of Vis+Ramin.


I am in love!

by Anonymous Persian (not verified) on

Dear Honorable Mr. Dick Davis: I want to thank you sincerely for a job well-done. I wish I could reach you and shake your hand sir. I admire you so much and you are my role model. May god bless you sir.

Jahanshah Javid


by Jahanshah Javid on

What an amazing story. "Vis & Ramin" was always on top of the list of books I MUST read. It reveals so much about life, love, culture and politics in Parthian Iran. Dick Davis has yet again done a magnificent job in presenting a Persian literary treasure to an international audience. Davis and Mage Publishers will be thanked forever for producing such works of unparalled beauty and scholarship. Absolutely wonderful...


Thank You Dick Davis

by manesh on

There has not been a translator of middle persian literature like you since Edward Fitzgerald.  Thank you for the bridge you build between two cultures.

I enjoyed reading your Shahnameh and My Uncle Napoleon, and I look forward to reading Vis o' Ramin