Life Lessons from Omar Khayyam

Some of Omar’s Rubaiyat warn us of the danger of Greatness, the instability of Fortune, and while advocating Charity to all Men, recommending us to be too intimate with none.”

Not so long ago (some three years back), in my search and longing for a deeper sense of self and true meaning, I stumbled upon the writings of a Persian poet, I learnt that the poetry of Persia often has two meanings, one inner and one outer. I remember the great satisfaction I derived from his explanations of the twofold significance of several Persian poems.

One day as I was deeply concentrated on the pages of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, I suddenly beheld the walls of its outer meanings. Ever since, I have admired the beauty of the previously invisible castle of inner wisdom in the Rubaiyat. I have felt that this dream-castle of truth, can be seen by any penetrating eye.

I’ve always admired the veiling of Khayyam’s metaphysical and practical philosophy.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam presents an interesting challenge to any reader trying to sort through its heavy symbolism and not-so-obvious theme. Not only does the poem provide us with a compelling surface story, but a second look at the text can reveal a rich collection of seperate meanings hidden in the poem’s objective descriptions and sprawling narrative-which in the space of a few pages includes such disparate characters as the Moon, God, the Snake (and his traditional Christian neighborhood, Paradise), the “Balm of Life”, not to mention nearly every animal and sexual symbol the human mind can come up with.

Obviously, on one level, the poem can present itself in a fairly straightforward manner in the vein of CARPE DIEM. In the third stanza, the author writes, “‘Open then the Door!/ You know how little while we have to stay,/ And, once departed, may return no more.” There’s several refrains to this throughout the poem, first in the seventh stanza: “Come, fill the cup. . ./ The Bird of Time has but a little way/ To flutter-and the bird is on the Wing.” The entire ninth stanza describes the summer month “that brings the Rose” taking “Jamshyd and Kaikobad away”, and so forth and so on ad nauseum. Again, in the fifty-third stanza: “You gaze To-Day, while You are You-how then/ Tomorrow, You when shall be You no more?” The poet seems to be in an incredible hurry to get this life going before some cosmic deadline comes due, and more than willing to encourage any of the laiety he encounters in the course of the poem to do the same.

Another recurring motif throughout the poem is the time-honored act of downing a few drinks. It appears that either “Wine”, the “Cup” or “Bowl”, and the “Grape” touch every stanza in the poem; the narrator seems to be an alcoholic. In the fifty-sixth stanza he dismisses everything so he can get drunk, having divorced Reason and married the Daughter of the Vine in the previous stanza: “Of all that one should care to fathom, I/ Was never deep in anything but-Wine.” Later the narrator compares the Grape to an angel. It’s clear this person has something of an obsession.

The Rubaiyat

By 

Omar Khayyam

Written 1120 A.C.E.

I

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter’d into flight

The Stars before him from the Field of Night,

Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes

The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

II

Before the phantom of False morning died,

Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,

“When all the Temple is prepared within,

Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?”

III

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before

The Tavern shouted–“Open then the Door!

You know how little while we have to stay,

And, once departed, may return no more.”

IV

Now the New Year reviving old Desires,

The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,

Where the White Hand Of Moses on the Bough

Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

V

Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose,

And Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup where no one knows;

But still a Ruby kindles in the Vine,

And many a Garden by the Water blows,

VI

And David’s lips are lockt; but in divine

High-piping Pehlevi, with “Wine! Wine! Wine!

Red Wine!”–the Nightingale cries to the Rose

That sallow cheek of hers t’ incarnadine.

VII

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.

VIII

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,

Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,

The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,

The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

IX

Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say;

Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?

And this first Summer month that brings the Rose

Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.

X

Well, let it take them! What have we to do

With Kaikobad the Great, or Kaikhosru?

Let Zal and Rustum bluster as they will,

Or Hatim call to Supper–heed not you

XI

With me along the strip of Herbage strown

That just divides the desert from the sown,

Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot–

And Peace to Mahmud on his golden Throne!

XII

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness–

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

XIII

Some for the Glories of This World; and some

Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;

Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,

Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

XIV

Look to the blowing Rose about us–“Lo,

Laughing,” she says, “into the world I blow,

At once the silken tassel of my Purse

Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw.”

XV

And those who husbanded the Golden grain,

And those who flung it to the winds like Rain,

Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn’d

As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

XVI

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon

Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,

Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,

Lighting a little hour or two–is gone.

XVII

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai

Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,

How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp

Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

XVIII

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep

The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:

And Bahram, that great Hunter–the Wild Ass

Stamps o’er his Head, but cannot break his Sleep.

XIX

I sometimes think that never blows so red

The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;

That every Hyacinth the Garden wears

Dropt in her Lap from some once lovely Head.

X

And this reviving Herb whose tender Green

Fledges the River-Lip on which we lean–

Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows

From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

XXI

Ah, my Belov’ed fill the Cup that clears

To-day Past Regrets and Future Fears:

To-morrow!–Why, To-morrow I may be

Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.

XXII

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best

That from his Vintage rolling Time hath prest,

Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

And one by one crept silently to rest.

XXIII

And we, that now make merry in the Room

They left, and Summer dresses in new bloom

Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth

Descend–ourselves to make a Couch–for whom?

XXIV

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!

XXV

Alike for those who for To-day prepare,

And those that after some To-morrow stare,

A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries

“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There.”

XXVI

Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d

Of the Two Worlds so wisely–they are thrust

Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn

Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

XXVII

Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by the same door where in I went.

XXVIII

With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,

And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow;

And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d–

“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

XXIX

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing

Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;

And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,

I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

XXX

What, without asking, hither hurried Whence?

And, without asking, Whither hurried hence!

Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden Wine

Must drown the memory of that insolence!

XXXI

Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate

rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate;

And many a Knot unravel’d by the Road;

But not the Master-knot of Human Fate.

XXXII

There was the Door to which I found no Key;

There was the Veil through which I might not see:

Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee

There was–and then no more of Thee and Me.

XXXIII

Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn

In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;

Nor rolling Heaven, with all his Signs reveal’d

And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

XXXIV

Then of the Thee in Me works behind

The Veil, I lifted up my hands to find

A Lamp amid the Darkness; and I heard,

As from Without–“The Me Within Thee Blind!”

XXXV

Then to the lip of this poor earthen Urn

I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:

And Lip to Lip it murmur’d–“While you live

Drink!–for, once dead, you never shall return.”

XXXVI

I think the Vessel, that with fugitive

Articulation answer’d, once did live,

And drink; and Ah! the passive Lip I kiss’d,

How many Kisses might it take–and give!

XXXVII

For I remember stopping by the way

To watch a Potter thumping his wet Clay:

And with its all-obliterated Tongue

It murmur’d–“Gently, Brother, gently, pray!”

XXXVIII

And has not such a Story from of Old

Down Man’s successive generations roll’d

Of such a clod of saturated Earth

Cast by the Maker into Human mould?

XXXIX

And not a drop that from our Cups we throw

For Earth to drink of, but may steal below

To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye

There hidden–far beneath, and long ago.

XL

As then the Tulip for her morning sup

Of Heav’nly Vintage from the soil looks up,

Do you devoutly do the like, till Heav’n

To Earth invert you–like an empty Cup.

XLI

Perplext no more with Human or Divine,

To-morrow’s tangle to the winds resign,

And lose your fingers in the tresses of

The Cypress–slender Minister of Wine.

XLII

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press

End in what All begins and ends in–Yes;

Think then you are To-day what Yesterday

You were–To-morrow You shall not be less.

XLIII

So when that Angel of the darker Drink

At last shall find you by the river-brink,

And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul

Forth to your Lips to quaff–you shall not shrink.

XLIV

Why, if the Soul can fling the Dust aside,

And naked on the Air of Heaven ride,

Were’t not a Shame–were’t not a Shame for him

In this clay carcase crippled to abide?

XLV

‘Tis but a Tent where takes his one day’s rest

A Sultan to the realm of Death addrest;

The Sultan rises, and the dark Ferrash

Strikes, and prepares it for another Guest.

XLVI

And fear not lest Existence closing your

Account, and mine, should know the like no more;

The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has pour’d

Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour.

XLVII

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 the Sea’s self should heed a pebble-cast.

XLVIII

A Moment’s Halt–a momentary taste

Of Being from the Well amid the Waste–

And Lo!–the phantom Caravan has reach’d

The Nothing it set out from–Oh, make haste!

XLIX

Would you that spangle of Existence spend

About the Secret–Quick about it, Friend!

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True–

And upon what, prithee, may life depend?

L

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;

Yes; and a single Alif were the clue–

Could you but find it–to the Treasure-house,

And peradventure to The Master too;

LI

Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins

Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;

Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and

They change and perish all–but He remains;

LII

A moment guess’d–then back behind the Fold

Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll’d

Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,

He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.

LIII

But if in vain, down on the stubborn floor

Of Earth, and up to Heav’n’s unopening Door

You gaze To-day, while You are You–how then

To-morrow, You when shall be You no more?

LIV

Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit

Of This and That endeavour and dispute;

Better be jocund with the fruitful Grape

Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.

LV

You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse

I made a Second Marriage in my house;

Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed

And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

LVI

For “Is” and “Is-not” though with Rule and Line

And “Up” and “Down” by Logic I define,

Of all that one should care to fathom,

Was never deep in anything but–Wine.

LVII

Ah, but my Computations, People say,

Reduced the Year to better reckoning?–Nay

‘Twas only striking from the Calendar

Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday.

LVIII

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,

Came shining through the Dusk an Angel Shape

Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and

He bid me taste of it; and ’twas–the Grape!

LIX

The Grape that can with Logic absolute

The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:

The sovereign Alchemist that in a trice

Life’s leaden metal into Gold transmute:

LX

The mighty Mahmud, Allah-breathing Lord

That all the misbelieving and black Horde

Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul

Scatters before him with his whirlwind Sword.

LXI

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare

Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?

A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?

And if a Curse–why, then, Who set it there?

LXII

I must abjure the Balm of Life, I must,

Scared by some After-reckoning ta’en on trust,

Or lured with Hope of some Diviner Drink,

To fill the Cup–when crumbled into Dust!

LXIII

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!

One thing at least is certain–This Life flies;

One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;

The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

LXIV

Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who

Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,

Not one returns to tell us of the Road,

Which to discover we must travel too.

LXV

The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d

Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,

Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,

They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.

LXVI

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,

Some letter of that After-life to spell:

And by and by my Soul return’d to me,

And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

LXVII

Heav’n but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire,

And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire,

Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,

So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.

LXVIII

We are no other than a moving row

Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go

Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held

In Midnight by the Master of the Show;

LXIX

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays

Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;

Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,

And one by one back in the Closet lays.

LXX

The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,

But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;

And He that toss’d you down into the Field,

He knows about it all–He knows–HE knows!

LXXI

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

LXXII

And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,

Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die,

Lift not your hands to It for help–for It

As impotently moves as you or I.

LXXIII

With Earth’s first Clay They did the Last Man knead,

And there of the Last Harvest sow’d the Seed:

And the first Morning of Creation wrote

What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

LXXIV

Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;

To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:

Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:

Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

LXXV

I tell you this–When, started from the Goal,

Over the flaming shoulders of the Foal

Of Heav’n Parwin and Mushtari they flung

In my predestined Plot of Dust and Soul.

LXXVI

The Vine had struck a fibre: which about

If clings my being–let the Dervish flout;

Of my Base metal may be filed a Key,

That shall unlock the Door he howls without.

LXXVII

And this I know: whether the one True Light

Kindle to Love, or Wrath-consume me quite,

One Flash of It within the Tavern caught

Better than in the Temple lost outright.

LXXVIII

What! out of senseless Nothing to provoke

A conscious Something to resent the yoke

Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain

Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!

LXXIX

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid

Pure Gold for what he lent him dross-allay’d–

Sue for a Debt he never did contract,

And cannot answer–Oh, the sorry trade!

LXXX

Oh, Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin

Beset the Road I was to wander in,

Thou wilt not with Predestined Evil round

Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!

LXXXI

Oh, Thou who Man of baser Earth didst make,

And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:

For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man

Is blacken’d–Man’s forgiveness give–and take!

LXXXII

As under cover of departing Day

Slunk hunger-stricken Ramazan away,

Once more within the Potter’s house alone

I stood, surrounded by the Shapes of Clay.

LXXXIII

Shapes of all Sorts and Sizes, great and small,

That stood along the floor and by the wall;

And some loquacious Vessels were; and some

Listen’d perhaps, but never talk’d at all.

LXXXIV

Said one among them–“Surely not in vain

My substance of the common Earth was ta’en

And to this Figure moulded, to be broke,

Or trampled back to shapeless Earth again.”

LXXXV

Then said a Second–“Ne’er a peevish Boy

Would break the Bowl from which he drank in joy,

And He that with his hand the Vessel made

Will surely not in after Wrath destroy.”

LXXXVI

After a momentary silence spake

Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;

“They sneer at me for leaning all awry:

What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”

LXXXVII

Whereat some one of the loquacious Lot–

I think a Sufi pipkin-waxing hot–

“All this of Pot and Potter–Tell me then,

Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

LXXXVIII

“Why,” said another, “Some there are who tell

Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell

The luckless Pots he marr’d in making–Pish!

He’s a Good Fellow, and ’twill all be well.”

LXXXIX

“Well,” Murmur’d one, “Let whoso make or buy,

My Clay with long Oblivion is gone dry:

But fill me with the old familiar juice,

Methinks I might recover by and by.”

XC

So while the Vessels one by one were speaking,

The little Moon look’d in that all were seeking:

And then they jogg’d each other, “Brother! Brother!

Now for the Porter’s shoulder-knot a-creaking!”

XCI

Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,

And wash the Body whence the Life has died,

And lay me, shrouded in the living Leaf,

By some not unfrequented Garden-side.

XCII

That ev’n my buried Ashes such a snare

Of Vintage shall fling up into the Air

As not a True-believer passing by

But shall be overtaken unaware.

XCIII

Indeed the Idols I have loved so long

Have done my credit in this World much wrong:

Have drown’d my Glory in a shallow Cup

And sold my Reputation for a Song.

XCIV

Indeed, indeed, Repentance of before

I swore–but was I sober when I swore?

And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand

My thread-bare Penitence apieces tore.

XCV

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,

And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour–Well,

I wonder often what the Vintners buy

One half so precious as the stuff they sell.

XCVI

Yet Ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!

That Youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!

The Nightingale that in the branches sang,

Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

XCVII

Would but the Desert of the Fountain yield

One glimpse–if dimly, yet indeed, reveal’d,

To which the fainting Traveller might spring,

As springs the trampled herbage of the field!

XCVIII

Would but some wing’ed Angel ere too late

Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,

And make the stern Recorder otherwise

Enregister, or quite obliterate!

XCIX

Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits–and then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

C

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again–

How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;

How oft hereafter rising look for us

Through this same Garden–and for one in vain!

CI

And when like her, oh, Saki, you shall pass

Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,

And in your joyous errand reach the spot

Where I made One–turn down an empty Glass!

THE END

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