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Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

by Cassie Ammerman, Publicity Assistant

I’ll admit it—I’m not a big poetry fan. In fact, I tend to adamantly dislike poetry to a point that embarrasses my English-major friends and colleagues. Which is why I groaned a little when I discovered that I was assigned as the publicist of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, by Edward FitzGerald, edited by Daniel Karlin. That was, of course, until I read it.

Now, this isn’t some magical tale of my complete one-eighty into an everlasting love of poetry. The Rubáiyát remains one of the only works of poetry that I’ve actually enjoyed, and I’m not really looking forward to diving into more of it (although I know I’ll have to eventually). But since April is National Poetry Month, I thought I would share a few of my favorite parts of the Rubáiyát with you, starting with part of Karlin’s introduction.

What kind of poem, then, is the Rubáiyát? It consists of a number of quatrains translated from verses by, or attributed to, Omar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyám, who was born in 1048 and died in 1131. The facts of Omar Khayyám’s life and work as FitzGerald knew them are set out in his Preface, which in this respect remained much the same through the four editions of the poem that appeared in his lifetime…

When FitzGerald encountered Omar’s poetry, in the summer of 1856, he did so in the form of a copy of a fifteenth-century manuscript which, though it undoubtedly contained dozens of poems not by Omar, only contained a few which could not possibly be his. It was, to use a term found in modern scholarship, an ‘Omarian’ text, as we speak of a ‘Homeric’ corpus. In this manuscript FitzGerald discerned, and was touched and possessed by, a spirit of uncompromising materialism, as profound and clear-sighted as that of Lucretius, shot through with lyrical power and sardonic wit. It was that spirit he set out to capture in his English version. In the Persian text the rubáiyát are independent, epigrammatic poems, grouped according to tradition by end-rhyme — in other words, not forming a narrative or argumentative sequence. FitzGerald saw how some of these separate poems might be combined in such a sequence, by analogy with the classical Greek or Latin ‘eclogue‘. The poem begins at dawn and ends at nightfall, and in the course of this symbolic day the speaker meditates on ‘Human Death and Fate’ (st. XXXI), mourns the transience of life, confronts his mortality with courage, with indignation, with gaiety, but without what he regards as the illusions and consolations of religious faith.

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 Sultán’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultán scarce is known,
And pity Sultán Máhmúd on his Throne.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Cæsar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.

And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River’s Lip on which we lean—
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Ah, my Belovéd, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of past Regrets and future Fears—
To-morrow?—Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d—
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

You know, my Friends, how long since in my House
For a new Marriage I did make carouse:
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

For “Is” and “Is-Not” though with Rule and Line,
And “Up-and-Down” without, I could define,
I yet in all I only cared to know,
Was never deep in anything but—Wine.

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.

That ev’n my buried Ashes such a Snare
Of Perfume shall fling up into the Air,
As not a True Believer passing by
But shall be overtaken unaware.

Indeed the Idols I have loved so long
Have done my Credit in Men’s Eye much wrong:
Have drown’d my Honour in a shallow Cup,
And sold my Reputation for a Song.

Ah, Moon of my Delight who know’st no wane,
The Moon of Heav’n is rising once again:
How oft hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me—in vain!

And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one—turn down an empty Glass!

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