The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

I was recently introduced to Omar Khayyam in a book by Christpher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist. I have since fallen in love with it as a kind of tome to the ’empty’ yet enviable grave of the pleasure-seeking atheist. Omar Khayyam himself was apparently no saint, however I find his lust for life infectious, and his desire to cast of the shackles of a constrained life admirable. This is tangentially related to my post from last week, insofar as it pertains to pleasure being sought for its own end. Khayyam’s earnest desire to enjoy life and his good-natured mockery of those who live under the delusion that alcohol, women or song are sins is refreshing for the era.

The poem is circa 11th century Iran. Needless to say such a poem was heretical at the time, and indeed my having to post extolling the virtues of simple pleasure clearly indicates that I still consider that society warns us against indulgence. But what is so wrong with indulgence? People have overindulged in their desire to curtail overindulgence. Of course alcoholism is a problem, as is excess of any kind.

Excess in moderation is a mantra I try to live my life by. The enjoyment of life should never be considered a guilty pleasure. For that matter, why is the term ‘guilty pleasure’ in such common use? Why feel guilty about pleasure? Especially considering that the term is usually referring to a square of chocolate or a glass of wine before sundown.

Enjoy yourselves, people! It’s why we’re here! (It seems appropriate that this is a Friday afternoon post, then.)

And with that, I give you The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, as it is reproduced in The Portable Atheist

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 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 flagon, and his soul the wine;
Man is read, his soul the sound therein;
Man is the lantern, and his soul the shine

Would you be happy, hearken, then the way
Heeed not TO-MORROW, heed not YESTERDAY
The magic words of life are HERE and NOW
O fools, that after tomorrow stray

Were I a Sultan, say what greater bliss
Were I to summon to my side than this
Dear gleaming face, far brighter than the moon
O love! and this immortalizing kiss

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 younder 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 hath 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 meam?

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

Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane
This playful wisdom growing out of pain
How many midnights whitened into morn
before the seeker knew he sought in vain

You want to know the secret-so did I
Low in the dust I sought it, and on high
Sought it in aweful flights from star to star
The Sultan’s watchman of the starry sky

Up up, where Parween hooves stamped heaven’s floor
My soul went knocking at each starry door
Till on the silly top of heaven’s stair
Clear eyed I looked-and laughed- and climbed no more

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 had taught me that the search is vain

Yet sometimes on a sudden all seems clear-
Hush! hush! my soul, the secret draweth near;
Make silence ready for the speech divine-
If heaven should speak, and there be none to hear!

Yea, sometimes on the instance all seems plain,
The simple sun could tell us, or the rain
The world, caught dreaming with a look of heaven
Seems on a sudden tip-toe to explain

Like to a maid who exquisitely turns
A promising face to him who, waiting, burns
In hell to hear her answer-so the world
Tricks all, and hints what no man learns

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 the 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 have he hidden, who shall hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a moggot tell?

So since with all my passion and my skill
The world’s mysteries meaning mocks me still
Shall I not piously believe that I
Am kept in darkness by heavenly will?

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 never know

Where 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-
a lovely old book in hideous errors drest-
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too
The unbeliever knows his Kuran 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

Old Khayam, say you, is a debauchee;
If only you were half so good as he!
He sins no sins but gentle drunkenness
Great-hearted mirth, and kind adultery

But yours the cold hearted, and the murderous tongues,
The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,
The close-shut fist, mean and measuring eyes,
And all the little poisoned of wrong

So I be written in the book of love,
I have no care about that book above,
Erase my name, or write it, as you please-
So I be written in the book of love.

What care I, love, for what the sufis say?
The sufis are but drunk another way;
So you be druk, it matters not the means,
So you be druk-and glorify your clay

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 the 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 hands 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

When first the stars were made and planets seven,
Already was it told of me in Heaven
That God had chosen me to sing His vine,
And in my dust had thrown the vinous leaven

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