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.

Momus, Critic of the Gods

Momus is the Greek god of satire. To me he is an obscure yet fascinating figure. You have to admire a minor god who gets kicked out of Olympus for constantly mocking the immortals. He calls Zeus a violent god and a horny womanizer, and tells Aphrodite that her sandals squeak and she talks too much. I always wanted to find the god of comedy, and it seems I’ve found him. Unfortunately, he has a dark side as well, being subject to accusations of unfair criticism and envy. He certainly sounds like a comedian.

Sophocles, the famous Greek tragedian, wrote a satyr play called Momos, now almost entirely lost. Satyr plays “featured choruses of satyrs… and were rife with mock drunkenness, brazen sexuality (including phallic props), pranks, sight gags, and general merriment.” What fun! It’s nice to see that Sophocles can lighten the mood a bit and offer some bawdy, burlesque comedy. This is the same playwright who horrified us with the story of Oedipus, who if you recall, inadvertently murdered his father, married his mother, and stabbed his own eyes out.

Let us end with a fine tale about Momus:

“According to an ancient legend, the first man was made by Jupiter, the first bull by Neptune, and the first house by Minerva. Upon completion of their labors, a dispute arose as to which had completed the most perfect work. They agreed to appoint Momus as judge and abide by his decision. Momus, however, being very envious of the handicraft of each, found fault with all. He first blamed the work of Neptune because he had not made the horns of the bull below his eyes so he might better see where to strike. He then condemned the work of Jupiter, because he had not placed the heart of man on the outside, that everyone might read the thoughts of the evil disposed and take precautions against the intended mischief. And lastly, he inveighed against Minerva because she had not contrived iron wheels in the foundation of her house, so its inhabitants might more easily remove if a neighbor proved unpleasant. Jupiter, indignant at such inveterate fault-finding, drove him from his office of judge, and expelled him from the mansions of Olympus.”

— from Aesop’s Fables, “Jupiter, Neptune, Minerva and Momus”; Collins Classics edition.

Momus or Momos (μῶμος) was in Greek mythology the personification of satire, mockery, censure; a god of writers and poets; a spirit of evil-spirited blame and unfair criticism. His name is related to μομφή, meaning ‘blame’ or ‘censure’. He is depicted in classical art as lifting a mask from his face. — Wikipedia (the main source of information for this post).

“Muses bright and Muses pale;
Sombre Saturn, Momus hale,
Laugh and sigh, and laugh again,
Oh! The sweetness of the pain!”

– From Keats’ poem, Welcome Joy, Welcome Sorrow

Wanted: a poem celebrating life-long monogamy

“For a man to be a poet he must be in love, or miserable.”  – Lord Byron

I defy you, dear reader, to find one poem by a major poet — one poem — that celebrates lifelong monogamy. Hallmark anniversary cards do not count. Why is there such a yawning void when it comes poems addressing this subject? Perhaps because poets understand the transitory nature of love more fully than most. Poets celebrate love, not love’s longevity. Poetry will help you woo your woman, but after that… good luck.

Please understand, I support marriage, as I support modern civilization. That doesn’t mean it isn’t problematical for a whole host of reasons. And I’m not a complete cynic. When I see old couples dancing, it makes me believe. Couples can love each other, with mutual respect, with rewarding emotional initimacy and affection, for many years. But love — passion and giddiness — you’re not going to retain. The best you can hope for is a warm glow that flares up now and again on rare occasions — and that’s if you’re compatible and properly devoted.

But enough of what I think. Let’s hear what Lord Byron has to say on the topic. He slept with quite a number of married women, so he knows what he’s talking about. I give you two stanzas from Canto III, from his best work, Don Juan:


‘Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign
Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
That Love and Marriage rarely can combine,
Although they both are born in the same clime;
Marriage from Love, like vinegar from wine —
A sad, sour, sober beverage — by Time
Is sharpened from its high celestial flavour
Down to a very homely household savour.


There’s doubtless something in domestic doings
Which forms, in fact, true Love’s antithesis;
Romances paint at full length people’s wooings,
But only give a bust of marriages;
For no one cares for matrimonial cooings,
There’s nothing wrong in a connubial kiss:
Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife,
He would have written sonnets all his life?

connubial = of or relating to the married state : conjugal <connubial relations>

Coming soon… who is Petrarch?

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Movie Quote of the Day

Yesterday I was too exhausted to blog, so I watched TV. I happened to see the 2010 remake of the Karate Kid, starring Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s kid.

Jackie Chan plays Mr. Han, the Kung-Fu teacher. He shared this bit of wisdom, probably inspired by Taoist teachings:

“Being still and doing nothing are two very different things.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about that quote; it seemed all the more profound because of its context within a formulaic, Hollywood feel-good movie. Also, I was on the couch — doing nothing.