Discussing the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2008

L et's talk about something good and non-controversial and forget about politics and fish runs for a day.

Once upon a time there was a great nation called Persia, which is the present day state of Iran. Almost a thousand years ago, the son of a tent maker by the name Khayyami was born in Nishagur. He became one of the foremost mathematicians in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. He wrote a standard work on algebra and improved astronomical observations, reforming the calendar.

He was a freethinker and protested the narrowness and bigotry of the orthodox Moslem theologians as well as what he considered the hypocrisy and ravings of others.

He was also a poet. He wrote about 5,000 quatrains, a stanza or poem of four lines, embodying his philosophy of life. In Persian these were called rubaiyat.

In 1859, in London, Edward Fitzgerald published an edition of 75 quatrains which he called the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. His work was more a paraphrase than a strict translation. Although when first issued in only 200 copies, through the good offices of the book dealer Quaritch, it sold poorly, and was put in the remainder box at a penny each.

But it soon became famous and is today considered to be one of the most popular books of poetry ever written in English.

The first stanza begins:

"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 Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light."

Stanza nine:

"But come with old Khayyam, and leave the lot

Of Kaikobad and Kaikhosru forgot.

Let Rustum lay about him as he will,

Or Hatim Tai cry supper-heed them not."

Stanza 10:

"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."

And then perhaps one of the most famous lines in all of poetry, stanza 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 now."

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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