Rubaiyat

Someone asked me my favourite poetry, especially the one I enjoyed in times of stress. I thought and thought…

And then I remembered Omar Khayyam:
“A book, a woman and a flask of wine…
The three make my heaven, they may be thine!”

So here is to life and the mirth it brings… Omar Khayyam wrote his masterpiece, Rubaiyat, in Persian. The most famous translation is by Edward FitzGerald. But given the Sufi theme of Rubaiyat, each translator soaks what he wants. I have chosen the more romantic translation by Richard Le Gallienne. Sufi poetry is about mysticism… it talks of wine, women and god, and many believe wine and women are actually a metaphor for spirituality.

Presenting then to you, Rubaiyat, by Khayyam-Gallienne. Sit near the fire, wine in the left hand and Rubaiyat in the right. Read leisurely over few days, deeply and slowly… The seeker shall not be disappointed!

  • The RubaiyatOfOmar Khayyam
    Translated by Richard Le Gallienne
    (Selected passages)

    Awake! my soul, and haste betimes to drink,
    This sun that rises all too soon shall sink,–
    Come, come, O vintner, open thy drowsy door!
    We die of thirst upon the fountain’s brink.

    For some have love, some gold, and some have fame,
    But we have nothing, least of all a name,
    Nothing but wine, yet ah! how much to say,
    Nothing but wine–yet happy all the same.

    Within the haunted wine-cup more than wine
    It is that makes a mortal man divine,
    We seek a drink more deadly and more strange
    Than ever grew on any earthly vine.

    The wine-cup is the little silver well
    Where Truth, if Truth there be, doth ever dwell;
    Death too is there,–and Death who would not seek?–
    And Love that in itself is Heaven and Hell.

    The wine-cup is a wistful magic glass,
    Wherein all day old faces smile and pass,
    Dead lips press ours upon its scented brim,
    Old voices whisper many a sweet ‘alas!’

    Drunkards! so be it–yet, if all were wise,
    All would be drunk like us, with dreaming eyes:
    Poor sober world, so doleful all the day,
    Leave mosque and mart, and join our Paradise.

    There are no sorrows wine cannot allay,
    There are no sins wine cannot wash away,
    There are no riddles wine knows not to read,
    There are no debts wine is too poor to pay.

    Would you forget a woman, drink red wine;
    Would you remember her, then drink red wine!
    Is your heart breaking just to see her face?
    Gaze deep within this mirror of red wine.

    If thou wilt keep my head well filled with wine,
    I care not if the whole round world be thine;
    O fading kingdoms and forgotten kings,
    I know a better kingdom–drink red wine.

    Within the tavern each man is a king,
    Wine is the slave that brings him–anything;
    O friend, be wise in time and join our band,
    Drink and forget, and laugh and dance and sing.

    Who brought thee last night lovely to my side?
    Who drew thy warm veil cunningly aside?
    Who snatched thee back again so soon, so soon?
    Who set this hell-fire burning in my side?

    Like a dead man within thine arms I lay,
    Entranced beyond the bounds of night and day–
    O cruel breath of the dissevering dawn
    That bids me fly who would for ever stay!

    Only a breath divides belief from doubt,
    ‘Tis muttered breath that makes a man devout,
    Yea, death from life only a breath divides–
    O haste to drink before that breath is out.

    You say, “There are so many crowns to win,
    Yet you lie sunken in your sleepy sin”;
    Bring me a crown of gold and big enough,
    And I will wear it–all these are of tin.

    Once in the tavern you have reached the end,
    No more to fear from enemy–or friend;
    No more to hope, no more to do or say,
    Nothing to pray for–nothing to pretend.

    Think not that I have never tried your way
    To heaven, you who pray and fast and pray:
    Once I denied myself both love and wine–
    Yea, wine and love–for a whole summer day.

    I cannot help it–were it in my power,
    I would forsake my sins this very hour,
    Forsake the Rose, and bid the Vine good-bye,
    Kiss my last kiss–if it were in my power.

    O good old friends, what is it I have said?
    It was the wine that got into my head–
    Forgive me, O forgive, I meant it not,
    I shall forsake you only when I’m dead.

    This is no way my learnèd life to use!
    Tell me a better, then, that I may choose.
    Shall I for some remote imagined gain
    My precious little hour of living lose?

    Shall I, with such a little hoard to spend,
    Waste it to such unprofitable end?
    Do as you please who think another way–
    For me the wine-cup and a pretty friend.

    A book, a woman, and a flask of wine:
    The three make my heaven; it may be thine
    Lost to a world in which I crave no part,
    I sit alone and listen to my heart,

    And to my solitude sometimes I bring
    A gracious shape to sit with me and sing,
    Losing, to find, myself in her deep eyes–
    Ah! then I ask no other earthly thing.

    Good friends, beware! the only life we know
    Flies from us like an arrow from the bow,
    The caravan of life is moving by,
    Quick! to your places in the passing show.

    While still thy body’s breath is warm and sweet,
    Follow thy pleasures with determined feet,
    Ere death, the coldest lover in the world,
    Catches thee up with footsteps still more fleet.

    Set not thy heart on any good or gain,
    Life means but pleasure, or it means but pain;
    When Time lets slip a little perfect hour,
    O take it–for it will not come again.

    For spring is here, with all his ancient fires,
    Quick with old dreams, and thrilled with new desires;
    Vowed to repent, yet sure to sin again–
    O leave repentance to your withered sires!

    Strange is the riddle of this life of ours!
    Who knows the meaning of the heavenly powers?
    The grave of beauty is its cradle too.
    And new is old, and old is ever new,

    Though my estate be poor, my raiment torn,
    I am not really sorry I was born,
    For God has given me my heart’s desire–
    Wine, and the Well-Beloved, and the morn.

    Once in a garden this advice I heard.
    It was the Nightingale, the Rose’s bird,–
    He left the Rose, to hurry in my ear:
    “It is our only chance, you take my word.”

    For, have you thought how short a time is ours?
    Only a little longer than the flowers,
    Here in the meadow just a summer’s day,
    Only to-day; to-morrow–other flowers.

    The bird of life is singing on the bough
    His two eternal notes of “I and Thou”–
    O! hearken well, for soon the song sings through,
    And, would we hear it, we must hear it now.

    The bird of life is singing in the sun,
    Short is his song, nor only just begun,–
    A call, a trill, a rapture, then–so soon!–
    A silence, and the song is done–is done.

    Yea! what is man that deems himself divine?
    Man is a flagon, and his soul the wine;
    Man is a reed, his soul the sound therein;
    Man is a lantern, and his soul the shine.

    Would you be happy! hearken, then, the way:
    Heed not To-morrow, heed not Yesterday;
    The magic words of life are Here and Now–
    O fools, that after some to-morrow stray!

    To all of us the thought of heaven is dear–
    Why not be sure of it and make it here?
    No doubt there is a heaven yonder too,
    But ’tis so far away–and you are near.

    Men talk of heaven,–there is no heaven but here;
    Men talk of hell,–there is no hell but here;
    Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,–
    O love, there is no other life–but here.

    Gay little moon, that bath not understood!
    She claps her hands, and calls the red wine good;
    O careless and beloved, if she knew
    This wine she fancies is my true heart’s blood.

    Girl, have you any thought what your eyes mean?
    You must have stolen them from some dead queen.
    O little empty laughing soul that sings
    And dances, tell me–What do your eyes mean?

    And all this body of ivory and myrrh,
    O guard it with some little love and care;
    Know your own wonder, worship it with me,
    See how I fall before it deep in prayer.

    Of all my seeking this is all my gain:
    No agony of any mortal brain
    Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;
    The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

    Look not above, there is no answer there;
    Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
    Near is as near to God as any Far,
    And Here is just the same deceit as There.

    But here are wine and beautiful young girls,
    Be wise and hide your Sorrows in their curls,
    Dive as you will in life’s mysterious sea,
    You shall not bring us any better pearls.

    Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;
    If Allah be, He keeps His secret well;
    What He hath hidden, who shall hope to find?
    Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?

    How sad to be a woman–not to know
    Aught of the glory of this breast of snow,
    All unconcerned to comb this mighty hair;
    To be a woman and yet never know!

    Were I a woman, I would all day long
    Sing my own beauty in some holy song,
    Bend low before it, hushed and half afraid,
    And say “I am a woman” all day long.

    The Koran! well, come put me to the test–
    Lovely old book in hideous error drest–
    Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
    The unbeliever knows his Koran best.

    And do you think that unto such as you,
    A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
    God gave the Secret, and denied it me?–
    Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.

    Drunken myself, and with a merry mind,
    An old man passed me, all in vine-leaves twined;
    I said, “Old man, hast thou forgotten God?”
    “Go, drink yourself,” he said, “for God is kind.”

    “Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
    And at the same time make it sin to drink?
    Give thanks to Him who foreordained it thus–
    Surely He loves to hear the glasses clink!”

    From God’s own hand this earthly vessel came,
    He shaped it thus, be it for fame or shame;
    If it be fair–to God be all the praise,
    If it be foul–to God alone the blame.

    To me there is much comfort in the thought
    That all our agonies can alter nought,
    Our lives are written to their latest word,
    We but repeat a lesson He hath taught.

    Our wildest wrong is part of His great Right,
    Our weakness is the shadow of His might,
    Our sins are His, forgiven long ago,
    To make His mercy more exceeding bright.

    Life is too short, dear brother, to be sad;
    If you must needs be anything–be glad;
    Leave bitter books, and read the Book of Joy–
    I know that some declare the book is bad.

    Yea! I believe that He who made the skies
    Is wonderfully good, and very wise,–
    Beloved Master! Hast thou never seen
    The tears of pity gather in His eyes?

    In my left hand I hold the Koran tight,
    And grasp the wine-cup firmly in my right–
    Thus do I stand beneath the eye of heaven,
    Not quite a saint, nor yet a sinner quite.

    I break one law, another law to keep;
    The laws of death and hate I scorn to keep,
    The law of Love that is the law of Life–
    That is the only law I dare to keep.

    Lo! Nature’s law and God’s–two angry fires–
    Each the allegiance of my soul requires;
    Strange God that made, unmake me what I am–
    Or reconcile the law to my desires!

    Who set this wine-cup in my willing way?
    Who made this woman of enchanted clay?
    When gods decree such difficult commands,
    They should give too the power to obey.

    If I were God, I would not wait the years
    To solve the mystery of human tears;
    And, unambiguous, I would speak my will,
    Nor hint it darkly to the dreaming seers.

    ‘Tis a strange world we came to, You and I,
    Whence no man knows, and surely none knows why,
    Why we remain–a harder question still,
    And still another–whither when we die?

    Into this life of cruel wonder sent,
    Without a word to tell us what it meant,
    Sent back again without a reason why–
    Birth, life, and death–’twas all astonishment.

    I gave my heart, and life returns me–nought;
    My mind, my soul, I gave–for what? For nought.
    All dreams and loves and hopes I freely gave,
    Nothing is left to give–I give it–nought!

    Some say we came God’s purpose to fulfil–
    ‘Faith a poor purpose then, if so you will;
    O Love, I come to worship in your shrine,
    There is no part of you is not divine,

    Except–except–that heart of precious stone,
    Cold heart no man shall ever call his own,
    Nor fire warm, nor might of loving win,
    Heart great, and cold, enough to dwell alone.

    All those who in their graves unheeded lie
    Were just as pompous once as You and I,
    Complacent spake their little arrogant names,
    And wagged their heads, and never thought to die.

    A beauty sleeps beneath yon quiet grass
    Who dreamed her face the world might not surpass,
    Strength is her neighbour, but he boasts no more,–
    And over them the wind cries out, “Alas!”

    Would you seek beauty, seek it underground;
    Would you find strength–the strong are underground;
    And would you next year seek my love and me,
    Who knows but you must seek us–underground?

    O heart, my heart, the world is weary-wise,
    My only resting-place is your deep eyes,
    O wrap me warm in their illusive love,–
    For well I know that they are also lies.

    Sometimes as, cup in hand among the flowers,
    I think on all my witty wasted hours,
    I see that wine has been a fable too,
    Yes! even wine–so false a world is ours.

    Yet were it vain some other way to try,
    Of all our lying wine is least a lie,
    All earthly roads wind nowhere in the end,—
    What matters then the road we travel by?

    O weary man upon a weary earth,
    What is this toil that we call living worth?
    This dreary agitation of the dust,
    And all this strange mistake of mortal birth.

    Sometimes it is my fancy to suppose
    The rose thy face–so like thy face it glows;
    O woman made of roses out and in,
    Sometimes I only take thee for a rose.

    Write it in wine upon a rose-leaved scroll:
    All wisdom I found hidden in the bowl,
    All answers to all questions saving one,–
    Which is the body, and which is the soul?

    Shall death, that shuts the ear and locks the brain,
    Teach us what eager life hath sought in vain?
    Yet have I heard, so wild is human guess!
    This dullard death shall make life’s meaning plain.

    Yet if the soul should with the body die,
    A flame that flickers when the oil runs dry,
    Still but the heart that drives the strange machine–
    And what remains of this you once called “I”?

    This clay, so strong of heart, of sense so fine,
    Surely such clay is more than half divine–
    ‘Tis only fools speak evil of the clay,
    The very stars are made of clay like mine.

    Nay! think no more, but grip the slender waist
    Of her whose kisses leave no bitter taste,
    Reason’s a hag, and love a painted jade,–
    Come, daughter of the vine, dear and disgraced.

    ‘Tis a wild wife, but sweet, my saintly brother,
    Nor in this sour world know I such another;
    Sweet but forbidden–yet who would not prefer
    The wanton daughter to the lawful mother?

    Sweet but forbidden–forbidden because ’tis sweet!
    For salt and sour is mortal’s proper meat,
    Let but a grain of honey fall therein,
    And straight the surly leech forbids us eat.

    But, sinner, there’s one thing I want to hear,
    O tell me, is your sinning quite sincere?
    You would not leave it even though you could,
    Say that you would not, O my brother dear.

    Remember, all the pious who cry shame,
    With holy horror, on your tattered fame,
    Watch only for the opportunity
    Of turned backs and the dark–to do the same.

    Strange in this wicked world how hard to find
    A fellow-soul to honest sin inclined;
    Sinners at home are always saints abroad,
    The rose must never dare to speak its mind!

    A sheik once took a harlot in her shame,
    Calling the poor soul many an ugly name;
    “‘Tis true,” she wept, “all I appear I am;
    But, sheik, of thee would I could say the same!”

    My days are filled with wonder and with wine,
    Wine helps the wonder, wonder helps the wine,
    But in the night my bosom fills with tears–
    Tears, tears, for one who never can be mine.

    O ignorant world that brutishly denies
    Free speech unto the exquisitely wise;
    A thousand pearls–yet only one is threaded!
    Alas! for noble truth that hourly dies.

    Strange in a world so wonderfully planned
    The thick-wit fool should always rule the land,–
    Ah I well, the cup must solve that riddle too,
    ‘Tis more than we shall ever understand.

    Why should it be that those who merit least
    Must always be the masters of the feast.
    The fool’s purse fat, the wise man’s ever lean,
    And Beauty’s self the harlot of the Beast?

    ‘Tis written clear within the Book of Fate,
    The little always shall oppress the great,
    Who most deserves be slave to those who least,
    And only fools and rascals go in state.

    At what strange prices are we bought and sold,
    All is not golden that is bought with gold,
    The foolish costliness of worthless things–
    O for the scorn to tell it, stern and bold!

    Long have I sought, but seldom found a lover;
    To love aright is to be nought but lover,
    For love is a great sleepless, foodless fire,
    Love never moves his eyes from his desire;

    Who knows the meaning of a grain of sand
    Knows the whole meaning of the sea and land,
    How strange is man, that hath forgot so soon
    The daily wonder of the sun and moon.

    You to the mosque, with howling hymn and prayer,
    I to the temple of the vine, repair,
    The one true God in diverse ways to seek;
    I find him here–but do you find him there?

    Not all the fancies of the devotee
    Shall make fair pleasure aught but fair for me:
    These things are good–this woman and this wine;
    Shall I exchange them for–hypocrisy?

    Wrong not thyself, believing God to please,
    Nor think to serve Him by such lies as these,
    Break not for fashion an eternal law,
    Nor change true pleasures for false pieties.

    Sunday is good for drinking, Monday too,
    Nor yet on Tuesday put the wine from you,
    Wednesday drink deep, Thursday nor Friday fail–
    On Saturday is nothing else to do.

    When I am drunk the sky of life is clear,
    And I gaze into it without a fear,
    As I grow sober horribly I dread
    The shadows of my vultures drawing near.

    O love, if I should die before you died,
    Would you be really sorry that I died?
    And would you weep a whole week on my tomb?
    Then be a little happy–that I died.

    And would you see some face that looked like mine,
    And love it, love–because it looked like mine!
    And say, “How strangely like Khayyám you are!”
    And kiss the face so wondrously like mine!

    Ah, when at last the shrouded Saki, Death,
    Brings me a cup so sweet it takes my breath,
    Shall I not bid him welcome like his brother?
    Life I have feared not, shall I then fear death?

    O friends, forget not, as you laugh and play,
    Some that were laughing with you yesterday,
    Spare from your rose some petals for their graves,
    Sprinkle some wine upon their parching clay.

    For even this dust that blows along the street
    Once whispered to its love that life was sweet,
    Ruddy with wine it was, with roses crowned,
    And now you spurn it with your eager feet.

    ***