With death dominating the news, due to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and the inevitable linkage to the Middle East, I decided that a useful counterpoint would be a review of a very famous celebration of life that also originated from the same region. When Europe was in its “Dark Ages,” the late 11th and early 12th centuries, a polymath shined in Persia (modern-day Iran). Omar Khayyam was a mathematician and astronomer, and wrote numerous treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, and an extremely influential one on algebra. His “Rubaiyat” demonstrates that he was much more than what might be dubbed “a Middle Ages nerd.”
The Rubaiyat is a series of quatrains (four lines of verse). Fittingly enough, Khayyam opens with the beginning of the day, or, as he phrases it much more poetically: “And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.” Woven throughout this work is the very transient nature of life… that we must make the very best of every day that we have been given. He states that sentiment, well, much more memorably: “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.”
I had long admired the Gertrude Bell, and her willingness to explore the Middle East around the commencement of the 20th century. She too had a poetic “eye” for the desert regions, and described them lovingly in The Desert and the Sown: Travels in Palestine and Syria). I had no idea that she had borrowed her title from one of Khayyam’s quatrains, specifically: “With me along some Strip of Herbage strown; That just divides the desert from the sown; Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known; And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.” Certainly a way of celebrating the frontier, far from political concerns.
Khayyam successfully identified the four essential ingredients of life, in verse that has been repeated in many fashions, and varying formats: “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 Now.” Amazon is currently proclaiming “solidarité” (with the people of France) and so shall I, and change the aforementioned “Thou” to “Toi.” And note that the natural world beckons.
Never forgetting the necessity, nay, the imperative to hurry, for: “The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon; Turns Ashes- or it prospers; and anon; Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face; Lighting a little Hour or two – is gone.”
The translation is by the Orientalist, Edward Fitzgerald. This edition is accompanied by one of those soporific introductions that debate the validity and attributions of the various quatrains. Skip! Yes, in the imperative. Concentrate once, twice and three times on the fresh baked bread under the tree, the all-important Toi, and don’t let the ants, as in introduction, spoil the picnic. 5-stars.
J'ai pensé à lire ce poème mythique depuis longtemps, et la possibilité de l'avoir tout de suite en déchergement m'a paru une excellente idée. Après lecture partielle (c'est bien longue!) j'en suis très content.
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