232. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (12th century), translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1859)

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring, Your Winter garment of Repentance fling :

The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.

Quatrain VII

Source : A beautiful hardcover edition with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. Facsimile of the Hodder and Stoughton Gift Book of 1909, reproduced by Weathervane Publishers, 1977. Backed up with a sparsely annotated but attractive paperback published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2014.

Thoughts : A bit of a confused parentage for this one. The poem in 4-line quatrains is generally attributed to Omar Khayyam, noted 12th century Persian astronomer renown for making the calendar much more accurate but not for poetry, so it is unsure how many if any of these verses are actually his. Move forward to 1859 and Englishman Edward Fitzgerald discovers/translates/recreates the quatrains so elegantly that (eventually) they become a success (having failed to sell many in his first printing). How much is this a translation of 12th century poetry and how much is 19th century? How much was written by Khayyam? Is Fitzgerald’s work a translation, a revision or a new work inspired by an old? Most importantly, where should I put it in my timeline? 🙂

So what is it all about? Essentially there is no afterlife, we’ll all be dead soon, so let’s share a jar of wine or two and enjoy each moment.

But make no mistake  – this is beautiful poetry from the very beginning:

“Wake! For the Sun behind yon Eastern height

has chased the session of Stars from Night

And, to the field of Heav’n ascending, strikes

The Sultan’s Turret with a shaft of Light”

Quatrain I



Some of the imagery is obscure so an annotated copy or access to notes would help the 21st century reader get the most.

Favourite lines/scenes: Lots to love here, particularly if you, like me, are a little hedonistic by nature

Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness – Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Quatrain XII

“Were it not Folly, Spider-like to spin the Thread of present Life away to win – What? for ourselves, who know not if we shall Breathe out the very Breath we now breathe in!”

Quatrain XIV

“When You and I behind the Veil are past, Oh but the long long while the World shall last, Which of our Coming and Departure heeds as much as Ocean of a pebble-cast”

Quatrain XLVIII

But beware …

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on : nor all your Piety and Wit shall have it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a Word of it.”

Quatrain LXXVI

Personal rating:  9/10;  especially for a copy with Dulac’s exquisite pictures.

In the years 1100-1120:

  • Provencal troubadours roaming free range and singing of love
  • William II of England dies in a “hunting accident” in the New Forest, 1100
  • Western Crusaders seize ports along Tripoli coast, 1104-1109
  • Angkor Wat temple, Cambodia, and Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, built
  • Order of The Knights Templar founded in Jerusalem, 1119

Other reading this week: 

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers.

A body is found in a timid bachelor’s bathtub, naked except for a pair of pince-nez. A famous businessman disappears on the same night. But the two crimes are not connected ….. or are they? The first Lord Peter Wimsey detective story is sort of a mashup of Holmes and Watson, with Jeeves and Wooster. I found it worked well, with the relationship between Lord Wimsey and his butler strengthened by their wartime backstory and Wimsey’s bout of PTSD giving some serious depth to what could have been very lighthearted. Also, despite some light banter and  whimsical touches, the ending reveals a quite nasty and cold-blooded murder mystery.

I will definitely seek out and read the rest of the series.

OK, that’s all for now – see you in June!

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