Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

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Awake!  For morning in the bowl of night

Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight:

And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan’s turret in a Noose of Light

I bought this book in a second hand book sale in Wyoming.  I think it appealed to me mainly because of its lovely deep red suede cover, but also because, I fear, life in Wyoming was rather lacking poetry.  Despite this, I have never read it all the way through, so it was a pleasure to settle down with it today – and the lovely feeling of holding this book is definitely not something that can be recreated on a kindle.

Omar Khayyam was an astronomer poet from Persia born at the end of the 11th century.  As a boy he studied with an Imam along with two other boys to whom he grew very close.  The three boys made a pact that whichever of them became most successful in life (impossible to tell at that point) would share everything with the two others.  One of them went on to become Vizier to the Sultan Alp Arslan.  Eventually Omar and the other boy, Hasan, sought him out and asked him to keep his boyhood promise, which the Vizier duly did.  Hasan demanded a place in the government, which he duly received, but he became embroiled in political machinations and met an untimely death.  Omar, on the other hand, merely asked enough money to live on and to be able to carry out his scientific investigations.  He became a famous astronomer and was widely consulted by the Sultan Malik Shah, although his scientific leanings meant that many others in his age distrusted or reviled him.  As well as being a scientist, astronomer and mathematician he was also a poet, and wrote thousands of stanzas for his rubaiyat.  He died in AD 1123 and was buried in a grave where the North wind scatters roses over him.

The Rubaiyat is a series of numbered stanzas (quatrains) full of bons mot and nuggets of wisdom to carry with you and quote when appropriate.  There were originally over 1000 of these poems – this collection is substantially smaller.  You can imagine them being reeled off at the end of Persian dinner parties. There are definitely some themes running through the poems, and below I’ve identified the themes I spotted and given you an example of each one.  A quick google of the Rubaiyat suggests that there are fierce debates about the themes running through the poems, and that the collections are usually chosen to support one viewpoint or the other. Definitely room for further study, if you are interested!

This is a lovely book to dip in and out of, but I really wish I could read it in the original. It has been translated so that it still retains the original rhyming structure, but I can’t help but feel that means some of the original meaning and clarity has been lost or garbled.  But it is still full of sadness, humour, despair and hope.

Theme of death

Alike for those who for today prepare

And those that after a tomorrow stare,

A Muezzin from the tower of darkness cries

“Fools! Your reward is neither Here nor There.”

Theme of wisdom

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

Theme of alcohol

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 to gold transmute

Theme of love and lust

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

There are also a series of verses based on potter, which was a bit challenging for someone still recovering from reading The Children’s Book.  But they are well worth reading too!

If you are interested in the Rubaiyat then I would suggest having a look for other translations as well as this one (or learning Persian!) as it seems that I have stumbled upon a fascinating book where meaning is obscured by philosophy, translation, religion as well as the fact that it is poetry!

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Translated by Edward Fitzgerald, Avenel Books, New York

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