Poetry for the Drinking Man : The Rubaiyat

XXII

Seek the company of men of righteousness and understanding, and fly a thousand leagues from a man without wit. If a wise man giveth thee poison, fear not to drink thereof, but if a fool offereth thee an antidote, pour it out upon the earth.

My study of The Rubaiyat, that is, “The Quatrains” of Omar Khayyam, continues. I’m reading from a collection of three translations combined in one volume. It seems disrespectful to read Khayyam’s work from a cheap paperback, when you consider how many beautifully illustrated editions have appeared in the past. To imbibe his words in such a fashion is akin to drinking fine wine of excellent vintage from a Dixie cup. Furthermore, the Bardic Press edition (2005) I purchased is rather slipshod in its production, with minor errors here and there (such as  ”quotation” marks facing the wrong way and misplaced, commas). I wouldn’t recommend it.

omar

Bardic Press edition: what I’m reading

I’m currently making my way through the Justin McCarthy translation, which is quite different from Fitzgerald’s.

A Drinking Man’s Poetry: The Rubáiyát

Thanks to a meager, but curiously steady number of hits from around the world, I feel compelled to resume my blogging efforts. I know this is the age of Internet, but it is nevertheless thrilling to have my modest blog viewed by readers hailing from Spain, South Africa, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States… and that’s just today’s views.

I can’t sit idly by and neglect my international audience any longer! Forgive me, dear reader!

My passion is also renewed thanks to my discovery of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát. This is hardly a discovery; you can find this book everywhere. I know I’ve encountered it before, but for some reason it failed to take hold after an initial browsing — perhaps I dipped into the wrong translation.

There seems to be a consensus that Edward Fitzgerald’s version is the best available in English, though it is not the most accurate. According to the foreword of my edition,

“Fitzgerald left out a majority of the quatrains in the Persian collections, and his versions are very free renderings. He often invents lines, combines quatrains, and takes lines from other Persian poets. The Persian collections of the Rubáiyát themselves differ as to their contents, and contain verses that definitely weren’t written by Omar.”

— “The Quatrains of Omar Khayyám, Three Translations of the Rubáiyát”; translated by Justin McCarthy, Richard Le Gallienne, Edward Fitzgerald.

By the way, the Persian word for quatrain (that is, a four-line stanza) is rubái; rubáiyát is the plural.

But enough talk: what is the Rubáiyát — what are the Quatrains — about? We’ll get to Omar later. If I were to sum up his message, based on this afternoon’s reading, it is this: Life is short. Death is final. Fill your glass with wine!

If you are an alcoholic, I advise caution — These verses could trigger a relapse. Mr. Khayyám, inebriated with melancholy, has found in the Grape the best response to the riddle of existence. His thirst for answers have led him to the Tavern, where he intends to have his fill before Last Call:

‘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.

After this afternoon’s reading, I grow more convinced of my suspicion that modern poetry lacks vitality. This is memorable, timeless, meat-and-potatoes poetry, that despite some archaic words, would stir the soul of any man, no matter how simple or uneducated, because it addresses the pain of existence, instead of paining us with postmodern poetastery (Okay, that’s not quite a word). Khayyám is from the 12th century, Fitzgerald’s first edition was published in 1859.

But let me shut up, and offer you another round (stanzas 37 – 43, Fitzgerald, First Edition):

Ah, fill the Cup: — what boots it to repeat

How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:

Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday,

Why fret about them if To-Day be sweet!

 

One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,

One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste —

The Stars are setting and the Caravan

Starts for the Dawn of Nothing — Oh, make haste!

 

How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit

Of This and That endeavor and dispute?

Better be merry with the fruitful Grape

Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.

 

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.

 

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,

Came stealing through the Dusk an Angel Shape

Bearing Vessel on his Shoulder; and

He bid me taste of it; and ’twas — the Grape!

 

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.

 

boot (archaic) – to be of profit, advantage, or avail (to) “It boots thee not to complain.”
confute — to prove to be false, invalid or defective [to confute an argument]
trice – a very short time; an instant