A Brief Note on the Life of
Abul Qasim 'Unsuri

Iraj Bashiri
Copyright © Bashiri 2002

His full name is Abul Qasim Hassan ibn Ahmad 'Unsuri-i Balkhi. Other than that he was born in the town of Balkh around 968, there is virtually no information about his early life.

At the beginning of Sultan Mahmud's reign (ca. 1008), the king's youngest brother, Amir Nasr ibn Nasir al-Din, introduced 'Unsuri to the court. 'Unsuri's talents then brought him to the attention of Sultan Mahmud. Eventually, 'Unsuri became one of the Sultan's closest friends and, before long, any poet who wished his poetry to be recited before the Sultan had to have an "interview" with 'Unsuri, the Chief Poet. Unsuri served as the poet laureate for both Ghaznavid courts: the court of Mahmud (AD 971-1030) and of his son Mas'ud (1030-1041).

While serving the Ghaznavid court, 'Unsuri soared to the heights of his profession to become not only a wealthy poet and an experienced tradesman, but perhaps also the most powerful and enviable non-royal personality at the court. It is reported that as many as 400 poets composed poetry under his direction. As Chief Poet, he personally examined every composition closely before it was presented to the court.

'Unsuri was inseparable from Mahmud's retinue. In fact, the Sultan did not listen to any poet, no matter how well-versed in his trade, before that poet was cleared by 'Unsuri's "bureau." And no poet was cleared by 'Unsuri unless his politics coincided with the politics of the Chief Poet.

'Unsuri accompanied the king on his campaigns. Many of his qasidahs (odes) deal with Mahmud's victories. In a way, therefore, his poetry not only serves as a mirror of the events at court, but also chronicles the military and campaigns of the Ghaznavids, especially Mahmud's forays into India for more gold.

His poetry introduces 'Unsuri as a well-educated person for his time. As a youth he must have learned Arabic, logic, and the sciences. The intrusion of unfamiliar themes into his poetry and his own apparent zeal for showcasing his knowledge make his poetry enigmatic.

'Unsuri's poetry does not reach the musicality of Farrukhi's verse, nor does it have the versatility of Manuchehri's poetry. Two things, however, sustain 'Unsuri's verse: his ability to weave a riddle into the theme and his dexterity in transforming Arabic themes into Persian images that could not be easily traced to their original forms.

This scheme worked well for the Chief Poet. The reader's effort was expended on finding the solution to the riddle and on unraveling the alien theme. The technical shortcomings of the composition, thereby, were rarely observed. There was yet another aspect. 'Unsuri gave his poetry the proper 'political' dimension. His eulogy on the death of Sultan Mahmud (AD 1030), for instance, praises Mas'ud, the future king, more than mourns the death of Mahmud. This choice, of course, was the correct one as it secured for him the continuation of his position as the Chief Court Poet for the next ten years. 'Unsuri's death in 1040 coincided with the decline and fall of the Ghaznavid dynasty, the Iranian wing of it in any event.

'Unsuri's divan (collection of poems) is said to have contained 30,000 bayts. Only about 2,500 bayts remain.


What Is That Aqueous Thing?

Written by
Abul Qasim Hassan ibn Ahmad 'Unsuri (d. AD 1050)

Translated by A. J. Arberry, 1958

What is that aqueous thing like fire, that steely thing like painted silk,
In form a body san a soul, blood coursing purely through its veins?
Stir it, and it is like a stream; shake it, and it's a lightening-flash;
Hurl it, and it's an arrow sped; bend it, and it is like a bow.
Behold, it is a looking-glass besprinkled with minutest pearls;
See how the chips of diamond are interwoven in the silk!
Kingship and happiness are yours: be happy then, and be a king!
Put on the robe of happiness, recite the scroll of royalty!


The Eagle and the Crow: A Dialogue
Written by
Abul Qasim Hassan ibn Ahmad 'Unsuri (d. AD 1050)

Translated by Iraj Bashiri

Copyright © Iraj Bashiri, 2000

A dialogue occurred, I happen to know,
Betwixt the white eagle and the crow.

Birds we are, said the crow, in the main,
Friends we are, and thus we shall remain.

Birds we are, agreed the eagle, only in name,
Our temperaments, alas, are not the same.

My leftovers are a king's feast,
Carrion you devour, to say the least.

My perch's the king's arm, his palace my bed,
You haunt the ruins, mingle with the dead.

My color is heavenly, as everyone can tell,
Your color inflicts pain, like news from hell.

Kings tend to choose me rather than you,
Good attracts good, that goes for evil too.

Top of the page

Home | Courses