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

Poetry for the Drinking Man : The Rubaiyat


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.


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





Why I want to read e.e.cummings

I’m not an expert on poetry — I’ve always said that — but I trust that my amateur enthusiasm will make up for my lack of authority. That’s what blogging is all about, isn’t it?

I have a healthy scorn for most modern poetic output, and I choose to focus on poetry of the more traditional kind.

I read a review of a new biography about E.E.Cummings, and this point intrigued me:

“Though still that oxymoron, a popular poet, Cummings is, more than five decades after his death in 1962, at 67, disdained my academe.”

My only prior exposure to Cummings was when Stephen Colbert recited a poem of his during an interview.

Now I have two reasons to check out e.e. cummings.

O Fortuna!

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the title, you will recognize this song. It’s one of those great works of music diminished somewhat by overuse in movies and television, and yet it still electrifies the spirit and rumbles with thunderous emotion.

Originally a medieval poem lamenting fate and fortune (Fortuna being a Roman goddess and a personification of luck), O Fortuna is part of a larger collection known as the Carmina Burana, which is Latin for “Songs of from Beuern” (“Beuern” is short for Benediktbeuern, a city in Germany).

Anyway, the 13th century Carmina Burana manuscript contains 254 poems and songs, written by the irreverent Goliards, a group of students and clery who wandered, drank, and mocked the Catholic Church. That’s about all I’ve managed to find out this evening, but my curiosity is definitely piqued by these young rebels of yore.

290px-CarminaBurana_wheel (1)

German composer Carl Orff based his own “Carmina Burana” on 24 of the original poems. Set to music in 1936, his work begins with O Fortuna.

What’s great about this YouTube video is that it displays the Latin lyrics along with English subtitles. You might find them “depressing” — perhaps they are, but the music ends on a triumphant note. Does a captain hide below deck when a violent storm threatens to overwhelm him? No! He lashes himself to the helm! I urge you to do the same. If we don’t squarely acknowledge Fate’s monstrous power over us, what kind of humans are we? Weep with me! Weep!

The Libertine by Louis MacNeice

Read by Tom O’Bedlam, this Louis MacNeice poem delves into the dark side of one man’s promiscuity.

Gentlemen, there is nothing wrong with sowing your wild oats — just be sure to limit your acreage. You don’t want to end up like this guy…

Yesterday, I saw a man die

No one has drowned at Barton Springs, a popular spring-fed swimming pool in Austin, Texas, for over twenty years. Yesterday, I watched as lifeguards furiously attempted to revive a young man who had drowned rather mysteriously. He had jumped in the water with his friends, and died. He was 21.

As the commotion unfolded, sunbathers on the adjacent grassy hillside rose from their beach towels. Everyone was asked to step back. Lifeguards had to shout and blow whistles repeatedly to get a few single-minded lap swimmers out of the pool, even as the boy’s body remained ominously motionless on the cement walkway. All I could see was his bathing suit, and a pair of legs that refused to move, as the seconds turned to minutes. Two or three attempts at CPR failed.

Everyone reluctantly exited the area as instructed, as approaching sirens were heard. As I walked to the back gate, turning and lingering every few steps, I remember seeing one solitary man, still seated, book in hand, reading away and seemingly oblivious to what was happening. Eventually he got up. I’m sure he felt inconvenienced.

Outside the chain link perimeter of the park and out of view of the pool, I waited for something to happen, but the two ambulances remained parked by the entrance, in no hurry. Nearby, I watched a man and woman chatting under a tree, their smiles and body language indicating mutual attraction. Another girl looked through the fence, and leaned against her boyfriend for comfort. I noted I was alone. I felt vaguely disappointed in myself for not feeling more emotion, and furrowed my brow slightly because it seemed the appropriate face to wear. I wandered toward a gray-haired gentleman, who was playing the role of pundit, offering speculation to a young man. In a field close by, boys played soccer.

I circled around the perimeter of the park to get a better view, following the chain-link fence as it descended down the hill. This time, a kneeling EMS worker thrust his hands without pause, trying to bring a torso back to life.

I watched from a distance. In the foreground, squirrels chased each other. The waters lay gilded with a golden, early evening glow. The scene, with the curve of an aged oak on one side, would make a curious painting. The natural setting remained peacefully indifferent to death. I wrote a brief post for Facebook to document the event, but I forgot to mention where I was.

Finally a gurney took the body away. The application of an IV bag and an oxygen mask provided some false hope, but I knew otherwise. Too much time had passed.