Omar Khaiyyam

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Authors born between 800 and 1100 CE

Ki no Tsurayuki ] al-Biruni ] al-Ma'arri ] Samuel ha-Nagid ] Bilhana ] [ Omar Khaiyyam ] Anna Comnena ]

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Contents    

Introduction

Dawn

Time

Paradise

Mortality

Clear Past Regrets

Like Wind I Go

Be Merry with the Fruitful Grape

Destiny

Spring Shall Vanish

Sources

 

 

Introduction

  Omar Khaiyyam (1038-1131 CE) was born at Naishapur in Khorassan. He lived under the patronage of the Vizier of that time, Nizam-ul-Mulk, “busied,” said the Vizier, “in winning knowledge of every kind, and especially in astronomy, wherein he attained to a very high pre-eminence.” Omar (or Umar) was a mathematician as well as an astronomer and contributed to the reform of the Muslim calendar. According to some accounts he left his academic studies to take up Sufic training under a Sheik or teacher. It may have been at this time that he wrote the verses that Edward Fitzgerald found and translated some seven centuries later.

Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyyat of Omar Khaiyyam was very well received as an English poem, but Persian writers have expressed concern about the distortions he introduced by his very free and selective translation. Fitzgerald spoke of his work as a “transmogrification” and mentioned that he “mashed” together verses. His poem stressed living for the day, because of the impossibility of understanding the universe. It emphasized the immensity of space and time and the insignificance of man, and advocated shared friendship and conviviality, particularly the vinous delights of the tavern. Independent of whether Omar's words have a secret meaning known only to initiates, as some have alleged, they undoubtedly have an explicit meaning that can be enjoyed by the non-initiate.

In the following extracts, the number after each verse refers to the sequence of verses in the first edition. To give some idea of the way Fitzgerald gave free rein to his poetic impulse, I have included in the Sources section some comparisons with the translation by Omar Ali-Shah and Robert Graves in a collaboration intended to yield a literal translation.

   

Dawn

   

 1      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.      1

2       Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky  
   I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,  
 
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup 
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry.”     2

 Time

 

3       And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before

         The Tavern shouted—"Open then the Door.

         You know how little while we have to stay,

         And, once departed, may return no more."   3

 

4       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.   7

 

 

Paradise

5     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.   11

6     Look to the Rose that blows about us—”Lo,

         Laughing,” she says, “into the World I blow:

         At once the silken Tassel of my Purse

         Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw.”   13

 

 

Mortality

 

7     Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai

         Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,

         How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp

         Abode his hour or two, and went his way. 16

 

8     I sometimes think that never blows so red

         The rose as where some buried Caesar bled;

         That every hyacinth the garden wears

         Dropt in its lap from some once lovely head.  18

 

9     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!  19

 

 

Clear Past Regrets

 

1 0     Ah! my Beloved, 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. 20

 

11     Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and the best

         That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,

         Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

         And one by one crept silently to Rest. 21

 

12     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! 23

 

 

Like Wind I Go

 

 

13     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.” 28

 

14    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.   29

 

15     Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn

         My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn:

         And Lip to Lip it murmur'd—”While you live,

         Drink! —for once dead you never shall return.” 34

 

16     For in the Market-place, one Dusk of Day,

         I watch'd the Potter thumping his wet Clay:

         And with its all obliterated Tongue

         It murmur'd—”Gently, Brother, gently, pray!” 36

 

 

Be Merry with the Fruitful Grape

 

17     How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit

         Of This and That endeavour and dispute?

         Better be merry with the fruitful Grape

         Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.  39

 

18     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. 40

 

19     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. 41

 

20     The Grape that can with Logic absolute

         The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:

         The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice

         Life's leaden Metal into Gold transmute. 43

 

21     But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me

         The Quarrel of the Universe let be:

         And, in some corner of the Hubbub couch’t,

         Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee. 45

 

 

Destiny

 

22     '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. 49

 

23     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.  51

 

24     With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man's knead,

         And then of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed:

         Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote

         What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read. 53

 

25     Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,

         And wash my Body whence the life has died,

         And in a Windingsheet of Vineleaf wrapt,

         So bury me by some sweet Gardenside.   67

 

26     And much as Wine has play'd the Infidel,

         And robb'd me of my Robe of Honor—well,

         I often wonder what the Vintners buy

         One half so precious as the Goods they sell. 70

 

 

Spring Shall Vanish

 

 

27     Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!

         That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!

         The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,

         Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!   71

 

28     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!   73

 

29     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!   74

 

          

Sources

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (First Edition) Rendered into English Verse by Edward Fitzgerald. Bernard Quaritate, London, 1859. An electronic text version is available from Project Gutenberg via FTP.

The Original Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam. A new translation by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah. Doubleday & Company Inc. Garden City, New York, 1968. This is said to be based on a newly discovered manuscript, whose location is somewhat obscure.

A sample comparison of the two translations from three of the more famous verses:

 Where Fitzgerald writes

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

 Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:

Graves and Ali-Shah write

While Dawn, Day's herald straddling the whole sky,

Offers the drowsy world a toast “To Wine”,

 Where Fitzgerald writes

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

Graves and Ali-Shah write

Should our day's portion be one mancel loaf,

A haunch of mutton and a gourd of wine

Set for us two alone on the wide plain,

Where Fitzgerald writes

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Graves and Ali-Shah write

What we shall be is written, and we are so.

Heedless of God or Evil, pen, write on!

By the first day all futures were decided;

                                   Selection and commentary © Rex Pay 2000