“Sohrab and Rustum” is based on a historical event that took place in Persia about 600 b.c.e. Matthew Arnold acknowledges his source to be Sir John Malcolm’s History of Persia (1815) and states in his preface to the poem that he intends to “treat a noble action in a somewhat epic fashion.” In preparing to compose the consciously Homeric poem, Arnold reread his beloved Homer with the great admiration which he expresses in such poems as “To a Friend” (1849) and such prose works as On Translating Homer (1861) and “The Study of Poetry” (1880).
Clearly based on a Homeric model are Arnold’s elevated tone, ornate language, and elaborate extended similes, as well as the imposing stature he gives his two main figures, his use of an overriding fate working out their destiny, and his creation of a central dramatic episode of national significance. As an epic poem, “Sohrab and Rustum” is admired for its moving presentation of a dramatic conflict between father and son, its brilliance of language, and its richness of tone. In classical fashion, the poem involves one central action, which takes place in one day, and many critics have commented on the success of the poem’s many epic similes and on other parallels.
The main critical interest of the poem lies in its allegorical presentation of the moral and intellectual conflict characterizing the Victorian age and in its dramatization of Arnold’s personal dilemmas. The battlefield is Arnold’s poetic landscape—the “darkling plain” of the poem “Dover Beach” (1867), “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.” The characters Sohrab and Rustum may be seen as the personifications of the warring elements within the hearts and minds of all Victorian writers, who are as two-souled as the narrator of “Dipsychus” (1850) by Arthur Hugh Clough, Arnold’s friend and rival for the admiration of his father, who died in 1842.
The single combat between the venerable father Rustum and his son has specifically personal parallels in the conflict between Matthew Arnold, the successful poet, and his father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, the renowned headmaster of Rugby school, who was known for instilling moral earnestness and devotion to duty in his pupils. In many ways, Thomas Arnold resembled the proud and invincible old warrior Rustum. Biographers have suggested that in a sense Arnold,...
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The poem begins with the scene where, the two powerful armies of the Tartars and the Persians are encamped along the banks of the Oxus River. During the night the soldiers are asleep. The following day, they are about to witness a great battle. Sohrab, the hero of the Tartar army, fails to sleep. In the grayness of the early dawn, he leaves his bed and makes his solitary way through the black tents of the great encampment to the quarters of Peran-Wisa, commander of the Tartar army. Sohrab is the youthful champion of the Tartars. Hardly more than a boy, he had developed into the mightiest fighter of the Tartar host. Young in years and famous in arms, he is nevertheless restless and discontented. Above everything else, he wants to find his father whom he has never seen, the incomparable Rustum, invincible chieftain of the Persians.
Peran-Wisa awakens when Sohrab enters and asks an unusual favor of him: Sohrab wishes to challenge a leader of the Persians to single combat. He hopes that his fame as a fighter will thereby reach the ears of his father. Peran-Wisa urges patience and questions his wisdom in thus tempting fate. He fears that he would lose. He advises him to uses the mean of non-violence to find his father. But young as he is, Sohrab is not ready to listen to him. Since he has heard that he is the son of a famous warrior, he too wants to impress his unknown father with his strength. Just as a lions club cannot be held back, Peran-Wisa realized that he could hold back Sohrab and grants him the permission to fight a Duel.
The following morning, both the armies come out form their camp. The hosts were ready to engage themselves in the war. There is a scene where both the armies await the order of their respective commander. Just as they were about to engage in the battle, Perena-Wisa appeared on the battle front. He then announced that instead of war, there would be a duel. This meant that one champion form the Persian army and the other form the Tartar army would fight with each other. This was a death match where in the last man standing would gain victory for his entire army.
Meanwhile in the Persian camp, Gudurz, one of the member of the council goes to call Rustum to face the champion of the Tartar army. But Rustum says that the king himself should choose some young men to meet up to the challenge put by Sohrab. He admits that he is older than his opponent. Therefore he refuses to take part in the battle. Gudurz then taunts him by asking him a rhetorical question as to what the people would say once Rustum says no to the challenge. He warns Rustum to take heed lest the people would consider his days concluded.
These words of Gudurz, triggers the warrior’s spirit within Rustum and he decides to take part in the duel. Gudurz then returned to the camp while Rustum calls his followers and commands them to bring his arms and his shield to take down his opponent. He also bid his horse Ruksh to follow him. The horse follows him like a faithful dog. After this, Rustum makes his way towards the arena.
Both the heroes make their way into the arena. At this point Rustum tell Sohrab to back out. Rustum tell this because he feels pity on the youth-hood of Sohrab. Rustum also points out that Sohrab is like a son to him, without knowing the fact that Sohrab was his actual son.
Sohrab looks at the mighty figure and as he looks, a strange hope is born in his breast. He runs forward and kneeling before the mighty warrior says, “Art thou not Rustum? Speak! Art thou not he?” Sohrab was only told about the name of his father. Therefore hoping to be his father he falls on his feet catches his legs and asks him if he is Rustum.
Rustum, thinks that it is a trick and rebukes Sohrab’s amazement. He tells him of his fame as a proof that he himself is Rustum. He narrates to him the story besides wherein he “challenged once the two armies camped besides the Oxus, all the Persian lord, to cope with him in single fight: but they shrank”. He taunts him to get up to his feet and challenge him.
Sohrab gets up on his feet answers back saying that he was not scared of him. “I am no girl, to be made pale by words.” He also warns him saying that thought he was young, yet victory itself was not sure in whose court it would fall in and “only even will teach us in tour”
With this conversation the two great heroes fight for the honor of their kingdom. They fight with spear and club and both have gained mastery over their respective weapons. In the fight Sohrab gains the upper hand. He manages to impress damage on Rustums armor. Rustum in turn tries to fight back by attacking Sohrab with his club, but Sohrab being young and using his agility skills, dodges the strikes form of Rustum. The strike hits Rustum in return and Rustum falls to the ground. Sohrab removes his sword from his sheath and pierce Rustum.
Sohrab then taunts Rustum asking him to prove his might. He reminds him that “Boy as I am. I have seen battles too- Have waded foremost in their bloody waves and heard their hollow roar of dying men”. He then invites him to give his best in the fight and not to hold back.
As Sohrab spoke, Rustum get up and gets hold of his spear. He was full of rage and shouts back “girl, nimble with thy feet, not with thy hands!” He tells him that he will fight him with all his might and he no longer feels pity for Sohrab because he had shamed him in front of the entire army with “light skipping tricks and girl’s wiles”.
At this point both the warriors rush towards each other with all their strength ‘as two eagles on one prey’ and dash each other. Rustum strikes the Shield of Sohrab with his spear and manages to make a hole through it but is not able to reach Sohrabs skin. Sohrab strikes Rustums Helm (helmet) with his sword. This way, there is a tough fight between the two warriors each trying to get the better of each other. Because of the fight, a thick dust emerges from the ground and covers the battle field and no one could see anything. Rustum finally manages to pierce his spear through Sohrabs body. Sohrab takes a few steps behind and then fall to the ground for the last time. Finally when the dust settles, the two armies see Rustum standing on his feet while Sohrab lying on the ground.
Rustum with a bitter smile begin to sarcastically praise Sohrab. He tells that he was tough. He tells him that he has made his father and his friends proud for having faced a tough warrior as himself. But at the end he calls him a fool for having challenged him and getting killed by an unknown man. He insults him by saying, “dearer to the red jackals shall thou be than to thy friend, and to thy father old”
Sohrab then replies back to Rustum and tells him that it was not an unknown man but Rustum who slew him. He also tells him that if there were 10 more people as strong as Rustum against him he would still defeat them. But it was the name of ‘Rustum’ which troubled him. Because of the name he held back while fighting. He gives Rustum the shock of his life when he ironically tells that his father ‘Rustum’ will avenge his death. Till now both the warriors have no idea that they are related to each other
Rustum rebukes this statement and tells that, “The mighty Rustum never had a son”. Sohrab then reveals that Rustum did have a son, it was he himself. He also reveals that Rustum was never informed that he had a son. He also tells him that he pities his mother “who in ader-baijan dwells who with her father, who grows grey with age, and rules over the valiant koords camp”. Rustum finds it difficult to swallow the fact that the same person who is dying in front of him was his own son. The poet then gives us a glimpse of the past. One day Rustum was an honored guest at the king’s palace in a faraway city. Here he saw the king’s daughter, Tamineh, whom he loved for her beauty and wisdom. So they were married, for the king was glad to make an alliance with Rustum. Time came when Rustum had to go back to his own city. He was sad and could not take his wife with him. He did not wish that his people should know about his marriage for they expected him to marry a maiden of his own people. So he took a tender farewell of Tamineh and gave her an amulet made of onyx stone which he got from his arm, and said: “If Heaven should grant thee a little daughter in my absence bind this onyx in her hair; but if a son, place it upon his arm, then shall he be strong of limb as Sahm, my grandsire, and graceful of speech as Zal, my father.”
After sometime, Tamineh gave birth to a lovely boy who smiled at the world from the moment he came to it; and so they called him Sohrab, or the child of smiles. He was as mighty as his father. When he grew to nine years, he could fight and ride better than any grown man in that land. Tamineh was afraid for Rustum will be proud of such a son and take him from her. While still a baby she bound the amulet of onyx on his arm and sent message to Rustum that a daughter had been born instead. Rustum was disappointed for he had hoped for a brave son; but he sent five jewels for the child bade the mother to take good care of her. He was busy in the battlefield and could not come to see her.
When Rustum would still not believe that Sohrab was his son, Sohrab then gives him a proof. He loosened his belt and then removes the armor and shows him the seal which was given to him by his mother. Rustum is shattered looking at the proof. He realizes that the Sohrab was his son and he himself had killed him. In grief he utters out a loud cry, “O boy-thy father!”. He embraces Sohrab and kisses him. But his grief is too much for him to bear. He picks up his sword and is in the act of committing suicide. But then Sohrab stops him by giving him solace. He tells him “come, sit beside me on this sand, and take my cheeks and wash then with thy tears and say – My Son”.
Ruksh, the same horse given by Tamineh to Rustum comes on the scene. Being an animal, he is able to comprehend the sad fate befallen on his master and his son. Sohrab ironically praises Ruksh for having privilege of spending more time with his father than his own son. Finally Sohrab makes his final wish to be carried to seistan and to be placed on a bed, and mourned for him. He also requests to put an inscription which read, ‘Sohrab, the mighty Rustum’s son lies there, whom his great father did in ignorance kill’. Rustum promises him that he would fulfill his last wish. He also promises that he would let all his men go in peace without any bloodshed.
At the end, Rustum drew out the spear from the side of Sohrab let him pass away peacefully.