THE RUBÁIYÁT OF OMAR KHAYYÁM OF NAISHÁPÚR
By Edward Fitzgerald - 1859
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 Sultán's Turret in a Noose of Light.
What a wonderful start! to one of the very greatest long lyrical poems in the English Language - by one of the great one-hit-wonders of poetry.
I re-read this last night, astonished as so often before by its sustained richness and quotability; and moved to tears by the bitter-sweet sadness of its nihilistic hedonism.
The success of the poem was, perhaps, ensured by its having not just a superb beginning but an even better ending - with the final four verses:
Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!
Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
Ah, Moon of my Delight who know'st no wane,
The Moon of Heav'n is rising once again:
How oft hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me—in vain!
And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on The Grass,
And in Thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one — turn down an empty Glass!
As well as being great poetry - Omar Khayyam is perhaps the most accessible and moving account of the Epicurian philosophy of life; which is one response to the assumption and belief that death means extinction.
As such, it is a far deeper and more honest philosophy than the mainstream of today; Fitzgerald knew that if there is no God and mortal life is everything, and all meaning and purpose ultimately an illusion - then life was a sad business, and self-doping (with wine, or whatever works) and a painless, swift demise the only rational response.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
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.
Omar is clear that if death is the end, then life is tragic - and the fact is inescapable. By contrast, Modern Man is too muddled, distracted and dishonest to acknowledge even such a simple inference.
Yet the protagonist, again and again; by the very act of composing this poetry and his noticing of so much beauty and irony - and by his communication of it to the reader - implicitly denies his own assumptions... before lapsing back into doubt and regret.
And look—a thousand Blossoms with the Day
Woke—and a thousand scatter'd into Clay:
And this first Summer Month that brings the Rose
Shall take Jamshýd and Kaikobád away.
So, I read again, and entered that thought-world. And I realised again that either death is a good thing (when it happens in the right way, at the right time) or else it is a terrible thing which washed everything away - and the best we can hope for from it is to be overwhelmed by some relatively-pleasing delusion.
And that this is metaphysics - a matter of assumptions and not (contra Omar) evidence; this basic decision we make (inevitably) on the deepest of intuitive grounds. The problem for Modern Man is that we believe our culture, rather than our intuitions.
But - I will give Omar the last word:
Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultán after Sultán with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahrám, that great Hunter—the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.
I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Cæsar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.
And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean -
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!
Ah! my Belovéd, fill the Cup that clears
Today of past Regrets and future Fears;
To-morrow? - Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years.
Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest;
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.
And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new Bloom;
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend, ourselves to make a Couch—for whom?
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and - sans End!
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