Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Poetry Corner


By Norah Christianson

Selections from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Selections from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam                 

~ Translated By Edward Fitzgerald

 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.

 I sometimes think that never blows so red
 The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
   That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
 Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.

 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.

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.

 With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
 And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:
   And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d—
 “I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

 Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn
 My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn:
   And Lip to Lip it murmur’d—”While you live,
 Drink!—for once dead you never shall return.”

 For in and out, above, about, below,
 ‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
   Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
 Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

 While the Rose blows along the River Brink,
 With old Khayyam the Ruby Vintage drink:
   And when the Angel with his darker Draught
 Draws up to thee—take that, and do not shrink.

 The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
 Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
   Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
 Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

 I still have my father’s 1937 copy of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. (The first edition came out in 1859.) My father knew many sections of the Rubaiyat by heart, and in the evenings, when I was young, would sit at the kitchen table with his “flask of wine” (Four Roses whiskey) and recite the quatrains in his deep gravelly voice. He loved poetry. I loved to hear it from him. He’d recite long stretches of Longfellow, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Housman, Byron, Poe. But I believe Khayyam was his favorite. They shared philosophies.

The whole Rubaiyat is extremely beautiful. The poem questions the nature of reality, and is certain of the impermanence of life and the uncertainty of its meaning. Khayyam believed in enjoying the sensual life—an “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” philosophy. (Ecclesiastes 8:15, and Isaiah 22:13.) I’ve chosen here 10 out of the first version 75 quatrains. (The meaning of “Rubaiyat” is a Persian verse form consisting of four-line stanzas.)

Omar Khayyam has been called “The Astronomer-Poet of Persia.” His full name, as it appears in Arabic sources, was Abul Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam. (Just so you know.) He was born in 1048 in Persia. A brilliant polymath, known for his solution of cubic equations, he also contributed to a deeper understanding of Euclid’s parallel axiom.  As an astronomer, he calculated the duration of the solar year with incredible accuracy. (He designed the Jalali calendar, which provided the basis for the Persian calendar that is still in use after nearly a millennium.) Khayyam reported the length of the year as 365.24219858156 days. (Just so you know.) AND he was a poet. (If you think I understand any of this math stuff, you are wrong. I count on my fingers.)

It was Edward Fitzgerald, born in Suffolk, England in 1809 to extremely wealthy parents, who translated Khayyam. A poet and a writer, he had literary friends such as Thackeray and Tennyson. In 1853, Fitzgerald began to study Persian literature at the University of Oxford with Professor Edward Myles Cowell. In the Asiatic Society library in Calcutta, Cowell discovered a set of Persian quatrains by Omar Khayyam and sent them to Fitzgerald, who then set about to translate them. 

Fitzgerald made Khayyam famous, and Khayyam made Fitzgerald famous. There’s been much controversy about how accurate Fitzgerald’s translation is. But translation is an art in itself. Poets will translate poems they admire in order to make them accessible in other languages. There is, when translating literature (not in science or politics, one hopes), some leeway. A word that rhymes in one language will not rhyme in another, so the translator must find a rhyming word that may not be exact, but is near enough. A poet translating another poet will also often use a more beautiful or apt word than a strict translation would afford. For instance, if the word in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language translates literally to “wash” in English, the translator may take the liberty of using the more poetic word “bathe” instead.  (By the way, Fitzgerald was quite open about his taking translation liberties with the quatrains.) 

The Rubaiyat went through five revisions and five printed editions by Fitzgerald, and a sixth was published posthumously. (I have used here the first version quatrains from my dad’s book.) Each revision was somewhat different. Why would a poet work and re-work and re-work a poem? We do that. It’s an effort to make it perfect. When W. S. Merwin asked John Berryman (important American poets) how you can ever be sure that what you write is really any good, Berryman said, “You can’t. You can’t. You can never be sure. You die without knowing.” Which is why, I think, Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” 

At any rate, as Khayamm and Fitzgerald would translate each other’s credo, “Live it up!”


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