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:

XXVII.

“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.”

XCVI.

“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.”

CCLXXXIII.

“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.

CCLXXXV.

“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!

CCCLXXXV.

“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!

CCCCXXXII.

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

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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