is a Farsi word for quatrain, a four-line poetry stanza. The plural of
is rubáiyát. Thus, a literal English rendering of
the title of this famous poem is The Quatrains of Omar Khayyám.
(Farsi is the language that has been spoken in Iran since the about the
ninth century AD. It is written with Arabic characters.)
Omar Khayyám is the work
of two authors, Omar Khayyám (1048-1131) and Edward FitzGerald (1809-1893).
Khayyám wrote quatrains in his native Iranian language,
Farsi. Each quatrain, though consisting of only four lines, stood alone
as a separate work, usually an epigram or a special insight. FitzGerald
translated many of Khayyám's quatrains and combined them into a
single work with a central theme, carpe diem. But
he also added his own insights and couched the quatrains in his own style.
Some critics maintain that the poetic quality of FitzGerald's finished
product exceeded that of Khayyám's original quatrains. In other
words, Khayyám supplied the lumber, and FitzGerald built the house.
In 1869, scholar and critic Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) wrote in The
North American Review that the Rubáiyát
the work of a poet inspired by the work of a poet; not a copy, but a reproduction,
not a translation, but the redelivery of a poetic inspiration. In the
same article, Norton, who himself was a translator of foreign-language
literary works, wrote that
is probably nothing in the mass of English translations or reproductions
of the poetry of the East to be compared with this little volume [the Rubáiyát]
point of value as English poetry. In the strength of rhythmical structure,
in force of expression, in musical modulation, and in mastery of language,
the external character of the verse corresponds with the still rarer qualities
of imagination and of spiritual discernment which it displays.
of Work and Publication History
of Omar Khayyám
is a lyric poem in quatrains (four-line stanzas). Rather than telling a
story with characters, a lyric poem presents the deep feelings and emotions
of the poet on subjects such as life, death, love, and religion. The
was published in March 1859 but received little attention. However, after
poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) read and praised it in 1860, the
poem became highly popular. FitzGerald revised it four times thereafter
so that there are five published editions of the poem in all. This study
guide uses the first edition. Some changes FitzGerald incorporated in subsequent
editions are significant, as in the wording of the eleventh stanza in the
first edition, which became the twelfth stanza in the fifth:
Here with a Loaf of
Bread beneath the Bough,
"A Book of Verses underneath
A Flask of Wine, a Book
of Verseand Thou
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of
Beside me singing
in the Wilderness
Beside me singing
in the Wilderness
And Wilderness is
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise
access and compare the five editions, click
and Rhyme Scheme
poem is in iambic pentameter. In most stanzas,
the rhyme scheme is aabathat is, the first, second, and fourth lines have
end rhyme. However, in a few stanzas, all four lines rhyme. Here are examples
of both rhyme schemes.
1 Rhyme Scheme: aaba
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.
10 Rhyme Scheme: aaaa
me along some Strip of Herbage strown That
just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,
pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.
Carpe Diem (Seize the
poet, who refers to himself as "old Khayyám,"
is unable to commit himself to belief in an afterlife. Consequently, he
believes in living for today:
make the most of what we yet may spend,
we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Wine, sans Song, sans Singer andsans End!
Wine as the Water of Life
a universe that refuses to reveal the ultimate destiny of man, the only
intelligent way for one to relieve the anxiety about his fate, old
says, is to drink the Lethe of wine. In its intoxicating nectar,
one may forget the past and the future, living only for the pleasure of
the moment. Wine, of course, can symbolize aesthetic and intellectual pleasures,
as well as physical ones.
the poem is a sense of helplessness against forces beyond the control of
man. The universe, time, and of course fate will have their way no matter
what man does to counteract their power. Stanza 51 presents fate as a Moving
Finger that writes man's destiny:
The Moving Finger
writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all
thy Piety nor Wit
it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears
wash out a Word of it.
strikes a somber, melancholy note when he continually reminds the reader
that death will ultimately claim everyone. And after it does, he says,
Popularizes the Poem
is one of the most popular poems in the English language, thanks in good
measure to the soaring imagery. Consider, for example, the first stanza:
for Morning in the Bowl of Night
flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
The stanza presents two arresting
personifications, the first when Morning chases the stars away and
the second when the sun, the Hunter of the East, lassoes the Sultan's
Turret with a rope of light. (According to FitzGerald's notes, "[f]linging
a stone into the Cup was the signal for 'To Horse!' in the Desert.") The
alliteration of Stone and Stars and the metaphor
of Light also make these lines memorable. .......In
stanza 17, striking animal imagery mocks the memory of once mighty Jamshyd,
a mythological Persian king, and Bahram, a king (AD 420-438) in the Sassanian
dynasty of ancient Iran renowned for his skill at hunting:
say the Lion and the Lizard keep
Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunterthe Wild Ass
o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.
95 laments the passing of time with melancholy images appealing to sight,
smell, and sound.
that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
whence, and whither flown again, who knows!.
The following uses first-person point of view in summarizing and paraphrasing
the speaker of the poem. Indented passages and words in quotation marks
are exactly as they appear in the poem.
dawn drives out darkness, I dream of a voice in the tavern crying out to
fill the cup before lifes liquor runs dry. A rooster crows. Those at the
tavern door beg entry, saying, You know how little while we have to stay,
/ And, once departed, may return no more." .......Of
course, now at the beginning of spring, there is time for the thoughtful
soul to visit the solitude of the garden. There he will see blossoms as
white as the hand of Moses after God spoke to him (Exodus 4:6)blossoms
that perfume the air like the breath of Jesus. He will also see grapes
on the vine. How lucky we are to have gardens with grapes. How lucky we
are to have gardens at all. Consider Iram, King Shaddad's stupendous garden
city. The desert sands have swallowed it. All of its beautiful rosesgone.
(The Arabian Nights tells the story of King Shaddad and Iram. Sir
Richard Burton's 1850 translation of of the work says that Iram was a great
city of gold and silver with streets paved with rubies and pearls and planted
with trees bearing yellow fruit.) Gone too are flowers resembling
the magical cup of Jamshyd. (Jamshyd, or Jamshid, was a mythical Persian
there are grapes. And if there are grapes, there will be wine. In recognition
of the grape as the fruit of fruits, the nightingale cries out to a yellow
rose in ancient Sanskrit (an ancient language of India) that its petals
must blazon with red. .......In
this fire of spring, one must fill the cup and fling off winter, for there
is no time to waste. Time is a swift bird now on the wing. Come with me,
old Khayyam, and let others lie about as they may. Even when people practicing
well-known tradition of generositycall
you to supper, heed them not. .......Yes,
come with me along a strip of herbage that divides the desert from the
garden, and we fill find a place beneath a bough. There, with a loaf of
bread, a jug of wine, a book of verse, and you beside me singing, our wilderness
will become a paradise. .......How
sweet is the here and now. Although others await a better life, I say take
the cash in hand and forget the rest. The worldly hope men set their hearts
upon either turns to ashes or it prospers; but when it prospers, it is
gone in an hour or two, like snow that lights upon the desert. Thus, those
who harvest golden grain and those who throw it to the wind are alike in
their in their fate. .......In
this battered inn that is lifean
inn whose doorways are day and nightSultan
after Sultan sojourned an hour or two, then went his way. Now the lion
and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd once sat in glory and drank
deep; even the Sassanian sovereign Bahram now lies in sleep. .......I
sometimes think the rose is never so red as where some buried ruler, some
Caesar, bled; and every hyacinth in the garden springs from what was once
a lovely head. And this delightful herb whose green adorns the edge of
upon it lightly, for who knows from what lovely lip it rises. .......Ah,
fill the cup that makes us forget past regrets and future fears. Who knows
what tomorrow may bring. .......Lo!
Some that we loved as the best that time and fate could produce have already
drunk their cup and now lie at rest. And we who now make merry when summer
blooms will one day also lie beneath the couch of earth. .......So
make the most of the pleasures we have left to us before we too settle
into dust without wine, or song, or singer. Keep in mind these words:
for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
those that after a TO-MORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
your Reward is neither Here nor There."
is a crier who calls Muslims to prayer from the tower of a mosque.)
and wise men who have discussed this world and the hereafter now lie silent,
their words scattered to the wind and their mouths stopped with dust. Therefore,
come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
I was young, I spoke frequently with philosophers and holy men about death
and what comes after, and I always went out the door the same way I went
in. Oh, yes, I tried hard to coax to life the seed of their wisdom, but
I reaped no harvest. All I know for certain is that one day I will go out
of this universe to I know not where. .......Up
from the earth I came and rose higher and higher, and many problems I solved
along the way. But I could not unravel the knot of human death and fate,
was a Door to which I found no Key:
was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
seemedand then no more of THEE and ME.
the rolling Heav'n itself I cried,
"What Lamp had Destiny to guide
Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?"
blind understanding!" Heav'n replied.
then did I return to the earthen vessel to drink and learn the secret of
the well of life, and it murmured to me, "While you live, Drink!for
once dead you never shall return." I think that vessel must once have lived
a merry life. .......At
dusk one day in the marketplace, I watched a potter thumping his clay,
and it murmured, Gently, brother, gently, pray! .......Ah,
fill the cup. Why worry about unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday when today
is sweet. It is better to be merry with the grape than sad with bitter
fruit. Years ago I learned this lesson and banished reason from my bed
and took the daughter of the vine as my spouse. The grape can transmute
leaden metal into gold. .......Destiny
plays games with men, who are but pieces on a checkerboard to be moved
and slain. The moving finger of fate writes its tale, and nothing we do
can cancel a line. Our tears cannot wash away a single word. But do not
lift your hands for help to that inverted bowl, the sky, for it rolls on,
this I know: whether the one True Light,
to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,
One Glimpse of It within the Tavern caught
than in the Temple lost outright.
Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
blacken'd, Man's Forgiveness giveand take!
a potters shop one evening at the close of Ramadan (the ninth month of
the Muslim calendar which each day requires fasting and abstaining from
sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk), I stood alone with the population
of clay creations. One of them spoke: Who is the potter, pray, and who
not in vain
substance from the common Earth was ta'en,
That He who subtly wrought me into Shape
stamp me back to common Earth again."
said"Why, ne'er a peevish Boy
break the Bowl from which he drank in Joy;
Shall He that made the Vessel in pure Love
Fancy, in an after Rage destroy!"
answer'd this; but after Silence spake
Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
"They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
did the Hand then of the Potter shake?"
misshapen piece of pottery then said, "They sneer at me for leaning all
awry: / What? did the Hand then of the Potter shake?" Another vessel said
he had gone dry over time but that filling him with wine would rejuvenate
him. Ah, as my life plays out, give me wine. And when I die, wash my body
in wine and wrap it in the leaves of the vine. Then bury me by some sweet
garden, where I may perfume the air. Oh, I have paid homage to the idols,
but it did me little credit in mens eyes. And I have repented of my sinsbut
was I sober at the time? When spring came, my repentance was torn asunder.
Too bad that spring should end and, with it, sweet-scented youth. The moon
of heaven is now rising again. And how often will she rise hereafter to
look for me in this same gardenin
vain! And when you yourself shall one day walk among those at rest under
the grass and reach the spot where I lie, turn down an empty Glass!
Questions and Essay Topics
was published in 1859, the same year that Charles Darwin published On
the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. What do Darwin's book and
have in common in terms of their attitude toward religious dogma and traditional
Why are some views in the Rubáiyát
characterized as hedonistic?
Write an essay explaining the difficulties a writer faces when translating
into English a literary work written in another language?