Sohrab and Rustum: An Episode is a narrative poem with strong tragic themes first published in 1853 by Matthew Arnold. The poem retells a famous episode from Ferdowsi's Persian epic Shahnameh relating how the great warrior Rustum unwittingly slew his long-lost son Sohrab in single combat. Arnold, who was unable to read the original, relied on summaries of the story in John Malcolm's History of Persia and Sainte-Beuve's review of a French prose translation of Ferdowsi. In Sohrab and Rustum, Arnold attempted to imitate the "grandeur and rapidity" of Homer's style which he was to discuss in his lectures On Translating Homer (1861). The poem consists of 892 lines of blank verse.
The armies of the Persians and the Tartars have met on a plain by the River Oxus. The young warrior Sohrab, who is fighting for the Tartars, asks the Tartar general Peran-Wisa to delay the battle so he can challenge the Persian lords to single combat. He hopes that the fame he will win from this feat will reach the ears of his long-lost father Rustum ("I seek one man, one man, and one alone - /Rustum, my father..."). Peran-Wisa is reluctant to let Sohrab risk his life in such a way and tells him he would be better to seek Rustum far away in Seistan, where the old warrior is living in retirement with his father Zal. Nevertheless, he reluctantly agrees to Sohrab's request and challenges the Persians to choose a champion to fight with the young man. The Persians are at a loss whom to send, but Gudurz learns that Rustum has arrived in the camp the night before and goes to Rustum's tent to try to persuade him to take up the challenge. Rustum at first refuses, claiming he is too old and battle-weary and feels unappreciated by the young Persian king Kai Khosroo. Unaware of the young man's true identity, he says he wishes he had a son like Sohrab. Gudurz eventually persuades Rustum to fight but Rustum only agrees on condition that he meets Sohrab incognito, wearing plain armour ("Let not men say of Rustum, he was match'd / In single fight with any mortal man.")
Sohrab and Rustum face each other between the two armies. Rustum is moved to pity at the sight of the youth and offers to take him back to Seistan to live as his son if he will give up the fight. Sohrab has an intuition that the man is his father and asks him if he is indeed Rustum. Rustum fears that this is simply a trick so the lad can boast of having challenged the great warrior and refuses to reveal his identity. The combat begins.
Rustum misses Sohrab with his club, giving his opponent the opportunity to spear him. Instead, Sohrab offers Rustum a truce. Rustum angrily refuses, calling Sohrab a "girl", and the fight continues with ever greater intensity. Finally, as he is about to deliver a mighty blow, Rustum shouts out the battle cry "Rustum!" Hearing the name so unexpectedly confuses Sohrab and he drops his guard, allowing Rustum to deal him a mortal wound. As Sohrab lies dying, he proudly declares his ancestral lineage, promising that his own father - Rustum - will somehow hear of his demise and revenge him.
Admiring the lad's spirit - but frankly disbelieving his words - the victorious Rustum demands certain proofs to establish Sohrab's claim. Sohrab readily complies - finally revealing a heraldic emblem tattooed upon his upper arm by his mother when still a child. Rustum - recognising his own heraldry - and convinced too late of the truth of Sohrab's words - drops his arms and tears his hair, wailing in grief and shame. Holding his only son - whom he had never before met, and whom he has now unwittingly slain - Rustum disdains any further part in the warfare, and the opposing armies withdraw in peace.
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- Sohrab and Rustum (from Archive.org)
- ^ Arnold, Matthew Poetical Works Oxford University Press, 1950.
- ^ Poetical Works, pp.488 - 493
- ^ Craig W. Kallendorf A Companion to the Classical Tradition (John Wiley & Sons, 2010) p.87
- ^ Arnold, Matthew. Poetical Works Oxford University Press, 1950. pp. 61-ff.