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Ambition as Expansion of the Self in Odes by Fayżī (d.1595) and Makhfī (d.1702)
Although the Mughal poet laureate Fayżī Fayyāżī (d.1595) composed many odes (qaṣīdas) in honor of Emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605), arguably the sharpest theme that comes into focus across his odes is praise not for his patron, but for himself. Flexibly adapting the established Perso-Arabic mode of fakhr (self-praise), which commonly occurs at an ode’s conclusion, Fayżī composes entire poems about his own prowess, bragging about his deftness as a poet, his intellectual achievements, the nimble elegance of his imagination. Fayżī’s long-form boasts conjure familiar objects of masculine exemplarity (Alexander, Darius, Joseph, Plato); at the same time, he frequently extolls his poetic abilities through feminine attributes (delicate, beautiful, coquettish, bejeweled). At other moments, Fayżī’s self-praise leans on earth-transcending things (the stars and planets; philosophical concepts like “essence”), abstractions which do not partake of gender at all. As the object of his own praise, Fayżī the poet puts on a dazzling show of how “Fayżī the poet” is capable of embodying both masculine and feminine ideals, and of expanding beyond them. Fayżī frames these poems through the concept of himmat (“ambition”), a multivalent term with both positive and negative associations in different domains. This concept is put to similar use at a later historical moment by the Mughal scholar, poet, and princess Zīb al-Nisāʾ (d.1702), whose pen name is “Makhfī” (“the hidden one”). Her odes are not so brazenly self-laudatory, but she too uses himmat to make metapoetic statements about herself and her own ambitions. Makhfī’s poetic voice, like Fayżī’s, is striking in its ability to modulate the gender of its authority. At times, her poems more than hint at the pain and power of being a woman; however, Makhfī also describes how ambition pulls her towards masculine roles (she can become Aristotle, or Majnūn). Elsewhere, like in her ode about Sufism, she eschews gender altogether as she addresses the reader urgently, on serious matters, soul to soul. This essay argues that in Fayżī’s and Makhfī’s odes, ambition—specifically the ambition to attain excellence through literary language—is theorized by them as an expansion of the self. Reading Fayżī’s and Makhfī’s odes alongside their lyric poetry reveals how the form of the ode could be particularly well suited for activating metapoetic reflections about the authority and the ambition to speak, write, and think about the most powerful topics and figures in the world: God, the prophet, Akbar—and themselves as poets.
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