Oft-Quoted lines from the Rubaiyat

willy pogany rubaiyat



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.


enow — an archaic word; it means “enough”

If you encounter any discussion of the Rubaiyat, it’s almost inevitable that this stanza will be quoted, because it nicely sums up the good life — the here and now — that Khayyam urges us to enjoy. This translation is from Edward Fitzgerald (1st edition), and the illustration is by Willy Pogany.







Why Men are Violent

An extraterrestrial visitor observing our species would likely be horrified at how violent human males are, in all societies, past and present.

Perhaps one day humans will encounter an alien civilization with a reproductive scheme consisting of one, two — (or more?) — genders that live in perfect harmony. Instead of learning from them, however, I’m certain we will attempt to subjugate and kill their species. (A suitable pretext will be provided, of course.)

Violence is destructive, morally wrong, and mostly indefensible. Men most often commit it, and they victimize everyone: women, children, and mostly other men. Its cause is biological — murder and rape are extreme manifestations of male aggression, which in turn is a product of evolution. And evolution doesn’t care about human happiness.

The tribe that conquers the neighboring tribe wins. Consider that one in 200 men are direct descendants of Genghis Khan — a Darwinian success story.

Aggression can be sublimated and channeled in positive ways, however: through competitiveness, risk-taking, restless ambition. Even if you could dampen the aggressive tendencies of humans (through, say, genetic engineering) you would likely remove an element that is essential for survival — an element which is also present in females.

Am I fatalistic? Yes I am. Violence may be minimized; but it will never be eliminated. Some societies are indeed peaceful and seldom in the grip of strife and war, but they seem the exceptions. Norway comes to mind, for example. Aren’t they progressive? Well, sure — but they are also the descendants of Vikings, whose very name means “go raid your neighbors.”


Anyway, this entry is straying off the path of my normal content.

Here is an early poetic effort of mine, which like all my poems, I’m not satisfied with. I decided to address a seemingly unsuitable topic. I thought that even if I didn’t succeed, I’d at least be the first person to write a poem about ancestral rape. It’s a perverse observation: if it weren’t for the rapists lurking in the branches of your family tree, you wouldn’t be here right now, reading this…



The intermingled tangle of all our family trees
Forms a forest ancient, grown from soiled seeds
To undo all the crimes our myriad mothers faced
Would erase the very lines we cannot hope to trace
My kinship with the monkey bothers not the least
He is merely animal, man is truly beast.




Lord Byron documentary

I found this 2009 Lord Byron documentary on YouTube, aptly titled “The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron.”

Actor Rupert Everitt is the host. To Americans he is probably most familiar for his role as “George” in My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring Julia Roberts.

I found him off-putting at first. He’s a bit enamored with himself, his jokes fall flat, and his crass comments on Byron’s sex life can be jarring in the context of a BBC documentary. He also enjoys taking his clothes off for the camera, but I suppose that’s intended to titillate viewers. But at least he’s having fun, and even if he’s not a Byron scholar, his enthusiasm is sincere. Considering that the major premise of the show is to draw parallels between a celebrity-actor host and his admittedly narcissistic subject, you can’t fault him for succeeding.

A highlight for me was his strolling amid the ruins of a castle in Albania, where Byron visited the region’s powerful ruler, Ali Pasha. After walking past graffiti that read “Tupac 2008” and descending through a passage awash with trash bags, Everitt and his guide stepped beneath the same gateway Byron did 200 years earlier, to behold a beautiful vista of the surrounding mountains and valley below.

A few Quatrains


An illustration by Edmund Dulac of Old Khayyam in one of his moods. I hate to see him like this.

My two regular readers know that I’m a fan of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyám, original author of the Rubáiyát. He lived from 1048 – 1141, but achieved new fame in the Western world when some of his quatrains were freely translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald. Here’s a sample (From Fitzgerald’s First Edition, published in 1859, quatrains 26-32):


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 for ever 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 as in I went.


With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,

And with my own hand labor’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.


What, without asking, hither hurried whence?

And, without asking, whither hurried hence!

Another and another Cup to drown

The Memory of this Impertinence!


Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate

I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,

And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;

But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.


There was a Door to which I found no Key:

There was a Veil past which I could not see:

Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee;

There seem’d — and then no more of Thee, and Me.



Mick Jagger reads Shelley

I stumbled upon this on YouTube.

“On July 3, 1969, two days before the Rolling Stones were to headline a free music festival in Hyde Park, their former guitarist Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool. What was supposed to have been a party became, instead, a memorial.

About half a million people saw the Stones perform, including Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, Marianne Faithfull. Before they played, Jagger read out Shelley’s poem Adonais, and 3,500 white butterflies were released. …”

— from The Times Magazine.

Here are the stanzas from the actual poem:


  Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep —

  He hath awakened from the dream of life —

  ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep

  With phantoms an unprofitable strife,

  And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife

  Invulnerable nothings. — We decay

  Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief

  Convulse us and consume us day by day,

And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.


  The One remains, the many change and pass;

  Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;

  Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

  Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

  Until Death tramples it to fragments. — Die,

  If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

  Follow where all is fled! ……..

Sexy Rubaiyat – Illustrations by Ronald Balfour

Here are some beautiful illustrations by Ronald Balfour, featured in a 1920 edition of the Rubáiyát.

For more, here’s a post by John Coulthart, an artist and designer with an online journal that I enjoy visiting:

Ronald Balfour’s Rubáiyát
balfour 1



balfour 8



balfour 4




balfour 6




balfour 2



balfour 5







Poetry, Pop Culture, and some thoughts on Television.

In the future, I might share more posts about the intersection of the worlds of poetry and pop culture, although I fear it could dilute my content. The integrity of my blog could be threatened, if, in an ingratiating attempt to rope in more viewers, I feature too many instances in which television and movies make passing references to poetry. On the other hand, the fact that these references are made at all serves to legitimize poetry’s relevance in the popular consciousness.

If Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad does a dramatic reading of Ozymandias, it hauls a romantic poet a few fathoms up from the depths of obscurity. A viewer, recalling the poem from high school, might be inclined to dust off Shelley’s work.  Ack, who am I kidding! A Shelley cameo doesn’t benefit Shelley — it benefits Breaking Bad. Inserting poetry helps elevate a mere TV crime drama into a grand tragedy. Even people who don’t especially like poetry can be impressed by the aura of class it bestows. And why not introduce an episode in a compelling and original way? I can’t fault the writers for that; in fact, it earns my respect.

I enjoyed Breaking Bad. And speaking of poets, Shelley had a minor role in comparison to Walt Whitman. It was a volume of Leaves of Grass, with an inscription by “W.W.”, that served as a key plot point.

But that said, this illustrates the role poetry has been reduced to. In the landscape of popular culture that’s as empty and barren as the New Mexico desert, poetry is like an undergound aquifer that occasionally gets tapped into by better screenwriters for the sake of inspiration and novelty. Other than that, it doesn’t serve much of a purpose.

I don’t oppose television. I like it. But I do object to its prominence in our lives. One of the reasons I’m even writing this blog is because my immediate neighbor had his driveway resurfaced. The construction work somehow inadvertently severed the wires carrying free cable TV to my home (this after having unsubscribed months before).

Television, like alcohol, is a socially approved drug whose abuse is consistently under-reported by those who consume it.  At most, abusers admit to occasional weekend binges, and justify their addiction with their superior taste. It’s okay in our society to be addicted to great television shows. It’s even something to brag about.

In considering our culture, it is important never to neglect this fact: if it’s not on TV or in a  movie, it might as well not exist. This applies not only to a neglected form of expression like poetry — it applies to everything of value that doesn’t get ratings. Consider knowledge of history: Americans dwell in a bizarre, ahistorical world, vaguely aware of current events, forgetful of the recent events, and almost completely oblivious of past. For many Americans, their entire knowledge of Roman civilization is limited to having seen Gladiator.

Again, I’m not against all television content. Like any technology, it can serve good and bad ends. I just wish it wasn’t the end-all and be-all of our culture. In the food pyramid of the American cultural diet, there is one main food group, and it has a recommended serving of over three hours a day. For the most part, it is devoid of nutrition.

Television’s job is to entertain. That’s its first job. It doesn’t want to elighten you, it doesn’t want to motivate you, it doesn’t want to inspire you. It wants your eyeballs, not your mind. It doesn’t want you to be happy, it wants you to consume. It doesn’t speak to your soul; it speaks to the gawking voyeur vulture that lurks in us all.

Great poetry can last well over a hundred years — but in a hundred years, who will be talking about the television shows we watch now?  The shallow ponds of popular entertainment evaporate quickly, but poetry runs deep.









Beautiful Editions of the Rubaiyat

I hate the Kindle — and all eReaders — for a number of reasons, but the primary is one of aesthetics. A digital screen will never match the beauty of a well-made, finely illustrated book.

Here are some images of Rubaiyat covers I have gleaned from Pinterest. In the future I might expand and revise this post to include more details about the various editions. It would bring me great joy to own one of my own.
rubaiyat 2



”’rubaiyat book 1



rubaiyat 4



rubaiyat 5

Omar Khayyám — functional alcoholic?

Rubaiyat - Edmund Dulac

“Place it on my tab, O Cupbearer! For life is fleeting, and death is final!

I have only begun to appreciate the poetry and philosophic outlook of the great Omar Khayyám. After reading Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, I wondered: in picking and choosing from Khayyám’s quattrains, did he place undue emphasis on the poet’s celebration of wine? I went on to read Justin McCarthy’s lengthier prose translation, which reveals an even more pronounced prediliction for the Grape. It was this translation that made me think Omar has a problem. His exhortations to the reader can become downright wearisome. Like an argumentative drunk, he gets annoyingly repetitive, and keeps urging us to drink. Fitgerald’s Khayyam wants us to drink and be merry, to delight in the company of friends and lovers, to dwell in the here and now. McCarthy’s Khayyam seems more like an addict trying to drown his sorrow. Here are some examples from McCarthy’s translation that cried out for an intervention, but made me smile:


“I wish to drink so deep, so deep of wine that its fragrance may hang about the soil where I shall sleep, and that revellers, still dizzy from last night’s wassail, shall, on visiting my tomb, from its very perfume fall dead drunk.”


“The world upbraids me as a debauchee, and yet I am not guilty. Ye holy men, look upon yourselves, and learn what ye truly are. You charge me with violation of the Holy Law, but I have committed no other sins than riot, drunkenness, and adultery.”


“Behold the dawn arises. Let us rejoice in the present moment with a cup of crimson wine in our hand. As for honour and fame, let that fragile crystal be dashed to pieces against the earth.”

Drinking at dawn — always a bad sign.


“See that thou drinkest not thy wine in the company of some clown, riotous, having neither wit nor manners. Nothing but dissensions can come of it. In the night time thou wilt suffer from his drunkenness, his clamour and his folly. On the morrow his prayers and his penitence will cause thy head to ache.”

Choose the right drinking buddy. Wise words from Old Khayyam!


“I can renounce all, but wine — never. I can console myself for all else, but for wine — never. Is it possible for me to become a good Mussulman, and to give up old wine? — Never.

Rehab is for quitters!


Do not riot in the tavern; abide there without brawling. Sell your turban, sell your Koran to buy wine, then hurry past the mosque without going in.

And here are a few single lines to make my point:

“My happiness is incomplete when I am sober.” (96)

“Yes, the misery of this wretched world is a poison — wine is its only antidote.” (213)

“A mouthful of wine is better than empire.” (402)

Could it be that the Khayyám of the Rubáiyát is an exaggeration or caricature of the poet himself? I find it hard to believe that he could have functioned as an astronomer  — who took meticulous measurements to develop an incredibly accurate solar calendar — and as a drunkard.  He was also a leading medieval mathematician. Did he write his treatise on algebra while nursing hangovers? Who knows. At least he knew how to have a good time.

willy pogany rubaiyat

Another night at the Tavern

Omar Khayyam’s birthday.

Today (Sunday) is the birthday of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, the original author of the Rubaiyat, a work that became immensely popular in the West because of the poetic achievement of Edward Fitzgerald, a wealthy British gentleman who did not accurately translate the words so much as faithfully channel the spirit of Khayyam into English verse. As Fitzgerald himself acknowledged, it is a “rendition” rather than a translation.

Khayyam himself possessed prodigious talents beyond poetry. As a medieval mathematician, he wrote a famous treatise on algebra, and as an astronomer he helped develop a highly accurate Iranian calendar.  He inherited his title from his illiterate father, whose occupation — “Khayyam”  — means “tent-maker.”

Today I went to BookPeople, a well-known bookstore in Austin, where his work was absent from the shelves.  It seems Rumi has displaced him as the most fashionable Persian poet (in the U.S., at least), although I do find Khayyam in used bookstores.

According to The Wine of Wisdom, the Rubaiyat became “a household name from the 1870s to the 1950s.”  In WWI, soldiers carried copies of it into battle. Its appearance was well-timed: with its jabs at religion, it appealed to a new secular way of thinking, and its association with the Victorian conception of the East — a place of exotic, romantic sexiness — captured the public’s  interest.

There is more than one Omar Khayyam — that much is clear. He’s a polymath and a partier. A thinker and a drinker. Though he’s had dining clubs named after him, his Epicurean image overshadows his contributions as a scientist, mathematician, and philosopher.

Here’s a BBC video about him, which delivered a shock when it featured a visit to Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, which houses a large collection of Rubaiyat-related items (skip to the 33:25).