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Monday, August 11, 2008

A Jug of Wine and Thou

One of the dearest and most delightful of the books I have in my collection is an early edition of Edward FitzGeralds translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a refinement of some of the 600 or so "Rubaiyat's" (quatrains) written by the great, but forgotten by time, Philosopher, Astronomer and Mathematician.

Dealing as it does with existence, with a simile of life as time spent drinking wine from life's cup, in a garden: (Dreaming when Dawn's Left hand was in the sky / I heard a Voice within the Tavern Cry, / "Awake, my Little ones, and fill the cup, / Before Life's Liquor in its cup be dry"). I thought it good to bring it to the Knights attention, not least for its beautiful words, but also its history to this present time is one of extraordinary good fortune and "Kismet" in its own right.

For what slight details we possess of the life story of this great Persian poet we are almost entirely dependant upon his friend and patron, Nizam al Mulk. From him we learn that Omar Khayyam (Khayyam = a tent maker) was born at Naishapur in Khorassan around the middle of our 11th century, and died within the first quarter of our 12th century. This Nizam was a schoolfellow of the poet's at Naishapur, and in after years rose to eminence in the State, becoming Vizier to the Sultan Alp-Arslan.

In accordance with a compact made in old Collegiate days, so the legend runs, Omar came one day to the Vizier to claim an interest in his good fortune, and was granted the boon he asked - sufficient provision to enable him to devote himself to the pursuit of Knowledge.

He afterwards attained to a very high degree of proficiency, especially in the science of Astronomy. This, together with his skill in versification, brought Omar a notoriety that was far from being an unmixed blessing, for, though the Sultan showered favours upon him, Omar, for some reason or other, never became popular with the multitude.

Omar's views of Fate, Freewill, Existence, and Annihilation, could but offend the extravagant Mystics of his time. Today, though his philosophy, inclining as it does to the negative and lower side, may jar apon the feelings of some, all may admire the beauty of the muse, the symmetry of the style, and the brilliance of the imagination, enshrined in the great poem which fitly combines the genius of the Persian philosopher and that of the English poet.

When FitzGerald received from his friend Cowell the transcript of a rare Oriental Farsi manuscript, which he had found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, he probably did not foresee the immense interest which it was destined to call forth, the story of the First edition in 1859, is one of the romances of the the history of Literature. The book was issued at five shillings by Quarilch, but owing to its pronounced failure it was not long before it was relegated to a box at the publisher's door in which books were offered at one Penny.

Among the purchasers from this box was the pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Rossetti, who took the copy home and read it to a circle of friends, which included Swinburne and others; and it was owing to the influence of these choice spirits that the poem won that popular appreciation which it now enjoys.

So from those two moment of luck, I now cast it forward myself to another circle of Knightly friends and ladies to enjoy and wonder, and I'll leave you with a couple of the more well known verses;

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.


And when Thyself with shining foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scattered on the grass
And in thy joyous errand reach the Spot
Where I made one - turn down an empty glass.

Sir Dayvd (turning down empty glasses everywhere) of Oxfordshire


  1. I was turned on to another great Sufi Master Persian poet of around the 14th century by the Benedictine nuns at of the Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand. His name is Hafiz. Very good stuff! Here's just a taste:

    So that your own heart
    Will grow.

    So God will think,

    "Ahhh, I got kin in that body!
    I should start inviting that soul over
    For coffee and

    Because this is a food
    Our starving world

    Because that is the purest

    And here's an section from one of my favorites:

    Who can hear the Buddha sing
    If that dog between you legs is barking?

    Who can hear the Buddha sing
    If that canine between your
    Wants to do circus