Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) –
After the dark year of 2020, I thought it might be nice to talk about poetry and rebirth today. The quatrains or Rubaiyat attributed to the medieval astronomer Omar Khayyam (d. 1131), four-line Persian poems, are often about renewal, and some make special mention of New Year’s Day (Now-Ruz in Persian).
Here’s the thing: in ancient, Zoroastrian, Iran, New Year’s Day was celebrated on the vernal equinox (21 or 20 March). So although in all cultures, New Year’s is a time of renewal and rebirth, in Iran it coincides with the beginning of spring and not just, as in Christian culture, the beginning of the end of winter.
Last April, I brought out a new translation of the Rubaiyat, which has been called “aggressively modern.” The poetry had been made famous by the rendering of the Victorian translator, Edward FitzGerald.
In the first poem, below, I substituted “spring” for Now Ruz, since the spring references with regard to the New Year would have been confusing for Anglophone audiences. But it is in the original a “New Year’s breeze.”
The spring breeze on a rose’s cheek spreads joy.
The face you glimpse beyond the blooms grants bliss.
No words about last winter can bring cheer;
don’t speak of yesterday —- rejoice today.
Another poem with overtones of New Year is this:
Now that the world verges on being happy,
the high-spirited plan to make merry outside.
Each branch is putting out shoots as white as the
hand of Moses,
and every breeze wafts the life-giving breath of Jesus.
Trees with white blooms like our magnolias or elderberries are being compared here to the miraculous white hand of Moses. Turning his hand white was one of his divine signs that God instructed the Hebrew prophet to use when he confronted Pharaoh:
- Then Moses answered, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’… Again, the Lord said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” He put his hand into his cloak; and when he took it out, his hand was leprous,[a] as white as snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back into your cloak”—so he put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored like the rest of his body—
This miracle is also mentioned in the Qur’an, and Persian poetry refers to it as a sign of renewal, since Moses can reverse the condition at will.
The other reference is to Jesus’ ability to raise the dead.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam take a dim view of people who put off achieving their hearts’ desires. It is very much a poetry of “seize the day.” It advises against letting yourself lose hope, and urges that you express life-fulfilling passions:
Too bad if your heart isn’t scorched, if there’s
no one you’re pining for, who makes it leap.
That day on which love does not ache in you
is the most wasted day of your whole life.
We all have New Year’s resolutions on our minds nowadays, but this poetry is very well aware of our human frailties, and complicates whether breaking those resolutions is always a bad (or at least avoidable) thing:
Get up quick and bring me some wine—this is no time for
Tonight, your lush lips are my daily bread.
Pour me some Shiraz as red as your blushing cheeks.
My past repentance is as tangled as your curls.
We were reminded last year of how fleeting life is, how unpredictable fate. The poetry, however, urges against dwelling on our own ephemerality. Awareness of it should instead impell us to become joyous and make every moment count.
Since we can’t trust tomorrow,
find a way to fill this lovelorn heart with joy:
Drink up in the light of the moon– a moon that someday
will look for us …and not find us.
The moon won’t find so many of us after the grim last year, but those of us it can still descry must find a way to fill our lovelorn hearts with joy in the new year.
“’To read Juan Cole’s deft, plain-spoken translation of the Rubáiyát
is to find companionship, to rejoin a thousand-year human
conversation about how to endure, enjoy, and find a fleeting beauty
in everlastingly dire times. The lucid, cogent and mind-opening
Epilogue is a kind of grace, a gift freely given, from one of our
most astonishing and generous intellects.’”
– Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Moonglow (2017)
“’Omar Khayyam is a Persian treasure and Juan Cole’s new
translation brings him anew to Western audiences who
for centuries have been both delighted and educated by this
medieval sage! Reading The Rubáiyát is a thrill – you feel the
echoes of the 12th century seamlessly into our 21st, as this is
a holy book of wisdom and magic. In another perilous era for
Iranians, it’s wonderful to see this enchanting volume make
its way through the world yet again!’”
– Porochista Khakpour, novelist, essayist and author of Brown Album (2020)
Featured Illustration: screenshot from a work of Abdur Rahman Chughtai.