Mirza Mohammad-Ali, also known as Sa'eb of Tabriz, is one of the most brilliant post-classical Persian poets. He was born in Isfahan, then the capital of the Persian empire, in 1607 (400 years ago according to the Islamic calendar) into a family of merchants from Tabriz who had travelled to Isfahan in search of fame and fortune. At the age of twenty, already a competent prose writer and calligrapher, he began to make his mark as a poet. He may have inherited his early taste for poetry from one of his ancestors, Shams-e-Maqrebi, a mystic poet of the fourteenth century.
Sa'eb began to attend court but was disappointed by the atmosphere there. Torn by centuries of dissension and invasions, Persia was beginning to regain its cohesion under the iron hand of the Safavids. But the rulers of this new dynasty began to impose the Shi'ite faith on the Iranian people, causing social disruption which led numerous intellectuals to flee from Isfahan, where theologians held sway and made no attempt to hide their fierce hostility to poets, philosophers and mystics. Sa'eb described the situation in one of his poems, when he wrote: "Today intelligence and reason hardly count any more; it is an age of turbans and well-filled bellies".
As a result of this, Sa'eb left Persia for India. On the way he stayed for three years with a fellow poet, Zafar Khan, the governor of Kabul. When he arrived in India he entered the service of the Mughul emperor, Shahjahan, who was a great admirer of Persian literature and entertained him with lavish hospitality. He also received a warm welcome from the other court poets, who admired his style of writing.
In 1633, his father joined him and persuaded him to return home. Back in Isfahan, where he lived until his death in 1675, he was given the title "Prince of poets" by Shah Abbas II and alternated between life at court and periods of isolation and retreat. He wrote many panegyrics and a historical epic in honour of the king, but mainly worked in the lyrical vein of love poetry known as ghazal - short, elegantly written poems that brought him fame and ensured his place in posterity.
AN ENIGMATIC FIGURE
Sa'eb was the most celebrated poet of his day. His contemporaries read all his poems they could get their hands on, and yet he complained that he was unappreciated and misunderstood. …