Omar Khayyam (170) “For a hand … which always grips a wine glass”

For a hand like mine, 
which always grips a wine glass,
it would be a shame 
to put scripture or a rosary in it.
You’re a dry ascetic, 
and I’m a soused rascal, 
but don’t worry–
I’m too well watered
to burn in hell.

Translated by Juan Cole
from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, [pdf] Whinfield 170

5 Responses

  1. You know, I have a rather high-minded (heh) question for you regarding the translations — maybe you know. Considering Omar Khayyam’s over-arching background in algebraic language, have you noticed, or are aware of a mathematical cohesion in the Rubaiyat? In Cynewulf’s Old English poems, which slightly predate Omar’s, there seems to be a structure pointed out by a D. R. Howlett (via Daniel G. Calder’s book “Cynewulf” of UCLA) based on Golden Section. Regarding Cynewulf’s poem “The Fates of the Apostles” Calder writes:

    “In a work which conforms to the Golden Section the minor part relates to the major part as the major part relates to the whole: m/M=(m+M)= .618. In a poem 122 lines long the minor part should occupy 46.6 lines and the major part 75.4 lines. Sections II and III, dealing with the martyrdoms of the twelve apostles, occupy 76 lines. Sections I, IV, and V-VII, containing the prologue, epilogue, runic signature, and Cynewulf’s requests for our prayers, occupy 46 lines.”

    I’m simply wondering if there truly is another dimension to Omar’s poetry – if like Cynewulf he used the mathematical structure to organize and breathe the deepest meaning into the form. (sorry, I don’t have the correct fonts) Think of their co-exposure to Euclid.

    Hwaet! Icpsysne sang sigeomor fand
    on seocum sefan, samnode wide
    hu pa aepe;omgas ellen cyodon,
    torhte ond tireadige.

    Lo! I wrought this song travel-weary, sick at heart, gathered from far and wide how the nobles showed bravery, bright and glorious.

    Though this opening excerpt is small, it’s indicative of the whole. There’s a mathematical harmony in the entire poem, in its original structure, in the complete text. It effects to transcend mere words on a page to liven the experience of comprehending his message- so, I just had to ask if this is also a known trait of Omar Khayyam, as it would seem to me given his mathematic background, it even more likely he used, possibly more artfully, a like matrix? It seems so unlikely a poet-mathmetian of his caliber wouldn’t. That said, I wonder how much is truly lost in the translation if the original stress, diction, meter and form simply do not have the right combined effect of creating a symmetry of the whole.

    • Khayyam wrote in the Rubaiyat form of four lines, with meter and a four-verse rhyme. To my knowledge there is nothing unusual about his use of the Rubaiyat as compared to others. It may be that some verses, especially end verses, use the Arabic version of gematria, where the words can be converted to numerical values and then converted to other words with the same numerical value. But that isn’t something I know about with regard to Khayyam; it was more used by esoteric or batini groups like the Ismailis, or by Sufis.

      My suspicion is that as a scientist, Khayyam prefers to express himself plainly.

  2. along these lines i’ll throw this one, out there :

    the void is not empty
    it’s filled with light
    of this i am sure of
    with all of my might

    the world is troubled
    as i rest tonight
    half in darkness
    something’s not right

    the day will break
    the sun will rise
    and i’ll see things
    through different eyes

    i hope that my visions
    not clouded by doubt
    peace among all of us
    is the only way out

    now i write these off the cuff
    usually in five minutes or less

    but i did notice a symmetry here
    sometimes i count the syllables,
    for balance

    and thank you juan
    for the translations

  3. Now, I’m mostly positive there’s a mathematical theme there, (more from instinct than anything else) particularly in light of Omar’s observations and subsequent controversy of whether he is the subversive libertineous poet or was actually imputing that the divine is in the little everyday things and pleasure but considering his work with parallel postulates I wonder if he was in a sense visualizing the form through the quatrains. I think more visually-oriented thinkers tend to do that quite naturally. But I can also see the problem of tracking it down as the works available have been pretty corrupted with spurious additions, the questions of authenticity regarding what is truly his, and then the bigger problem of simply being able to hear elements like the rhyme scheme (music) in the lines. Even worse, how dissimilar is medieval Farsi to that of the present? Boy, that’s one for an enterprising grad student, I guess. And I imagine she or he would have to be an indigenous speaker of Farsi, for sure.
    And that’s not me! Oh well, thanks Professor Cole, I got a lot out of it.

  4. Greatly enjoy your translations of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat… Just wanted to say thanks! This is an exceptionally pithy poem!

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