Dover Book

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    Hey, everybody loves medieval Persian poetry, right? OK, so maybe not, but this one has become very popular since its discovery. And with good reason. It is a lusty and sensual expression of life through a man described as hedonistic, earthy, skeptical and epicurean.
    Omar Khayyám was a Persian mathematician, astronomer/astrologer and poet (though not really known for that during his lifetime). He was born in Nishapur (now northeastern Iran) in 1048, and died in 1131, at least according to Wikipedia. This Dover edition gives his death year as 1122. According to Wikipedia, Nishapur was a religious center for Zoroastrians, but his father likely converted to Islam. He came from a family of tent-makers.
    When I was reading The Knights Templar and Other Secret Societies of the Middle Ages, I was surprised that his name came up. I had recently bought this book, but not read it yet. Knowing a little about him inspired me to read it shortly after. I was not disappointed. The above book gives a less flattering assessment of Omar Khayyám. It states that he went to study with the imam Mowafek, where he met Nizam-al-Moolk and Hassan Sabah and the three became friends. It was agreed that whoever became successful would share it with the other two. It was Nizam-al-Moolk who obtained the position of vizir for the sultan Alp Arslan. According to the author of the above book, Omar Khayyám was offered a position, but declined because he preferred a more "epicurean" lifestyle and settled for a pension. Hassan Sabah, of course, went on to found the secret society of the Assassins, who were eventually responsible for the deaths of both the vizir and sultan. Fortunately, Omar Khayyám was not involved with that, but after their death, he fell out of favor in the court and left on a pilgrimage.
    Wikipedia, however, credits him for a bit more than just laying around, collecting his pension and drinking wine. The article linked above is quite lengthy, telling of all his gifts and achievements.
    The poems, however, speak differently. In 1859, Edward FitzGerald, an English country gentleman published a "free adaptation" of Khayyám's poetry, which, according to Wikipedia, became very successful after 1861, when made popular by the Irish lawyer and Celtic scholar Whitely Stokes, and the Pre-Raphaelites which included Dante Gabriel Rossetti. By the 1880s "Omar Khayyám clubs" were being formed and the poetry became extremely well known. FitzGerald continued to revise his work, and also according to Wikipedia, it has been published in several hundred editions. Numerous other people have since also published their own translations.
    The thing is, the poems were not known in Omar Khayyám's lifetime, and we really don't know how many are authentic. According to the same above Wikipedia article, it was 43 years after his death that any reference connecting him to the poetry was made. Even now, of the 1,200 quatrains, only 14, or possibly 121 are attributed to Omar! Well, that's quite an uncertainty!!
    But I look at it like this: the poetry is quite absorbing, captivating, thought-provoking. It questions our existence and what exists beyond, and in most cases concludes that we should live a lusty life while we are here, drink lots of wine and not worry about the rest. But still, the poet, whoever he was, does worry, though the answers to his questions remain elusive. Quite fascinating to read, and not difficult at all, at least in these FitzGerald free-translations.
    This is really a quite short book—52 pages in the Dover edition. Typically, the first edition is published along with the fifth, which is what is contained here, so it is two really different versions. The first edition is comprised of 75 quatrains, while the fifth has 101. It is missing, however, the lengthy and informative Introduction written by FitzGerald. That is included in the free eBook version provided by Project Gutenberg, which I have had downloaded and perhaps should have read before I bought the Dover edition. It was on sale, I believe, for a something like a dollar, so I am not out by too much money. And the beautiful front-cover illustration by Edmund Dulac was worth the cost of the book. In any case, I plan to read it again, the eBook version, and maybe hunt up some other translations. Both versions do contain a helpful "Notes" section which is like a glossary for unfamiliar words. The one in the eBook version is much more extensive and that one also contains a "Footnotes" section. I would recommend the eBook version. And by the way, I have found that I do like medieval Persian poetry. I have since found a famous epic poem mentioned in the Knights Templar book linked above, and also mentioned in these poems. It is available at Amazon.
    And so, a little about the quatrains. They are four lines long with (mostly) ten syllables each line. The first, second and fourth lines rhyme. Though a quatrain is defined as a poem in itself, these, or at least the manner in which FitzGerald published them, read like one long poem. They question, they probe, then conclude that life is fleeting: drink more wine. However, among the many aspects of these poems that are in question, the religious philosophy behind them still remains debatable. The above Wikipedia article has a section on the Skepticism vs. Sufism debate. FitzGerald believed that Omar's philosophy was "Epicurean," (that pleasure was the greatest good in life). He claimed that Omar was "hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose practice he ridiculed and whose faith amounts to little more than his own, when stripped of the Mysticism and formal recognition of Islamism under which Omar would not hide."
    Other scholars agree with this interpretation, including the medieval historian Al-Qifti, an Egyptian Arab scholar (1172-1248) known for his book, the History of Learned Men, in which he wrote that "Omar's poems were only outwardly in the Sufi style, but were written with an anti-religious agenda." He also mentioned that Omar was indicted for religious impiety, but went on a pilgrimage to avoid punishment. Later in life as his health declined, he was allowed to return to Nishapur, where he "seemed to have lived the life of a recluse," according to Wikipedia.
    This has become a long review for such a little book. I hope you explore the links I have provided to learn more about this fascinating man. To close, here are a few of my favorite quatrains, plus two illustrations for the book by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson. The first is "A Ruby kindles in the vine," and the second, "Earth could not answer nor the seas that mourn."

Earth could not answer nor the seas that mourn

A Ruby kindles in the vine

    These quatrains are all from the First Edition unless noted.

No. 1:
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.

    Here is the same poem from the Fifth Edition:

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter'd into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav'n, and strikes
The Sultán's Turret with a Shaft of Light.

No. 11:
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.

No. 13:
Look to the Rose that blows about us—"Lo,
"Laughing," she says, "into the World I blow,"
"At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
"Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."

    The word "blow" throughout these poems means "bloom," I believe. Here he speaks of a rose blooming, and the petals falling when the bloom is done. The next three speak of the fleeting nature of life, so we should live it to its fullest. A Muezzín is a caller to prayer.

Nos. 23, 24, 25:
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!

Alike for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
And those that after a TO-MORROW stare,
A Muezzín from the Tower of Darkness cries
"Fool! your Reward is neither Here nor There!"

Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss'd
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter'd, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

    In these two poems, the author questions Heaven and gets an ambiguous answer. He then questions the Earth, whose reply hints at the futility of life. In No. 40, he seems to toss it all to the wind, and decide that drinking is the best way to live.

Nos. 33, 34:
Then to the rolling Heav'n itself I cried,
Asking, "What Lamp had Destiny to guide
"Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?"
And—"A blind Understanding!: Heav'n replied.

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."

No. 40:
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.

    The last few poems, 59-75 in the First Edition and 82-101 in the Fifth are a separate set of quatrains, labeled NÚZA-NÁMA ("Book of Pots.") in the First. Here the author enters an empty pottery shop at the close of Ramazán, a month of daytime fasting. Some of the pottery remain silent, while others speak their opinion. Again, a question of creation and destiny, comparing humans to shaped and molded pots. Here are the first three from the First Edition.

Nos. 59, 60, 61:
Listen again. One Evening at the Close
Of Ramazán, ere the better Moon arose
In that old Potter's Shop I stood alone
With the clay Population round in Rows.

And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
And suddenly one more impatient cried—
"Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?"

Then said another—"Surely not in vain
"My substance from the common Earth was ta'en,
"That He who subtly wrought me into Shape
"Should stamp me back to Earth again."

    Well, aren't these lovely? They are quite easy to read and understand, even for me, and poetry is not one of my areas of literary expertise. I will no doubt continue exploring this translation and others, if I can find them. Highly recommended.


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