Premodern Persian critics recognized the importance of an eye-catching opening line to a successful ghazal poem. Known as the ḥusn-i maṭlaʿ, a “beautiful opener” could both arouse the reader/listener’s interest in a poem, while also setting the stylistic and thematic tone for what follows. Order and sequencing can thus be understood as an important element of the Persian lyric poet’s aesthetic considerations. This paper investigates the extent to which the first poem in poet’s collected works (dīvān), the maṭlaʿ-i dīvān, can be ascribed a similarly considered function and thus reveal something important about a poet’s framing of his or her own literary project.
There are several reasons to suspect this may be the case. First, while it true that Persian dīvāns were typically arranged alphabetically, we sometimes find that the first poem in a dīvān does not technically accord with this organizational rule, suggesting that a poet (or the managers of their literary estate) deliberately placed it in pole position for one reason or another. Second, there is some evidence to suggest that a poet’s first ghazal was often one of their best known, circulating disproportionately often in anthologies and other commemorative texts. An impressive first ghazal, therefore, might have reasonably been considered a poet’s best chance at literary survival. Finally, I suggest that a close reading of initiatory ghazals can substantiate this hypothesis further, often revealing them to be emblematic examples of a poet’s stylistic signature, spotlighting the themes, images, syntax, and approach to figurative language characteristic of their lyric style. To demonstrate this point more fully, in this paper I will discuss three different opening ghazals by poets known for their distinctive lyric style: Ḥāfiẓ (d.1390), Fayz̤ī (d.1595), and Asīr (d.1639), exploring a reading of these poems as programmatic statements on their wider lyric projects and commenting on their reception history. I will conclude with some remarks about the textual condition of Persian dīvāns, referring to discrepancies between how manuscripts and print editions have organized and ordered ghazals, to highlight how the latter sometimes obscure the canonical first poems of the former.