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Featured Poem: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald

Written by jen, 1st June 2009

Omar Khayyam (1048 - 1123) was a Persian mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and poet, today most famous for his Rubaiyat, a spirited and profoundly humanistic celebration of life, love and liquor! The best known translation (or rather adaptation) is that of the English writer Edward Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was born in 1809 and published his first set of Khayyam-inspired verses in 1859, which, incidentally, adds two more anniversaries to 2009's already overflowing cup. The rubai is a four-line stanza, or quatrain, that rhymes AABA and offers rousing robustness: the rhyme disappears, falters for a line, but returns with added emphasis to clinch the deal. (And then sometimes, like a flourish, the rhyme is maintained throughout.) Below is a selection of the hundred-or-so quatrains that Fitzgerald produced. The full cycle, with all its variations, is readily available online.

from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted – ‘Open the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.’

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door where in I went.

With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand wrought to make it grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d –
‘I came like Water, and like Wind I go.’

Ah, fill the Cup – what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn TOMORROW, and dead YESTERDAY,
Why fret about them if TODAY be sweet!

But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.

For in and out, above, about, below,
’Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

’Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again –
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden – and for one in vain!

And when like her, oh Sáki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One – turn down an empty Glass!

Edward Fitzgerald (1809 - 1883)
Omar Khayyam (1048 - 1123)

Life is short and has to end: "Time is slipping underneath our Feet". That's the unavoidable truth, the same in Khayyam's day as in Fitzgerald's as in our own. But often it's the simplest pleasures ("A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,/A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou") that can transform a Wilderness into Paradise. We can't alter the past (read again that beautiful stanza beginning "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on"), nor predict the future, and may never know what the whole "Magic Shadow-show" is really about, if anything. The best we can do is to enjoy ourselves while we can. Yes, life is short and has to end. But at least we get the chance to experience it at all, here, now, on a sunny summer Monday, the first day of June.

So make mine a double! (That's two teabags...)

3 thoughts on “Featured Poem: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald

Vic says:

Thanks for this Jen. Very special to me this as it was one of my Grandad’s favourites. He gave very dramatic readings of it.

colin says:

Has there been a decent modern translation from the original Arabic? And is there a line by line analysis anywhere?

fipplepop says:

I have a similar interest, although I have no interest in the original Farsi. The magic of this poem is all Fitzgerald, not Khayyam. Therefore, I want a line-by-line analysis of the poem as written by Fitzgerald. This, I have been unable to find, although I have spent a great deal of time in the search. It’s not that the Rubaiyat is difficult to understand–it’s definitely not; however there are a few lines (only a handful) whose meaning escape me. If I could learn their meaning, I would be a happy man.

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