‘Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.’
So commands Edward FitzGerald’s cult Victorian composition, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, described by critic Harold Bloom as ‘the most popular poem in the English language, incessantly read by people who do not read poetry’. Its creator translated and added to Khayyám’s 11th century Persian quatrains (each individually known as a ruba’i), forming a collection of bite size wisdom that is simultaneously philosophical and rebellious, profound and carefree.
Providing readers with a Victorian lens on Medieval Persia, the work famously urges its audience to defy Fate, Destiny, and the unknowable mysteries of existence by taking to present pleasures, significant among which is a good glass or two of wine. If you haven’t before, lose yourself in its lines! Differences between FitzGerald’s editions mean that the Rubáiyát you read can slightly vary. Project Gutenberg has an online copy of the First and the Fifth, together with explanations of references to Persian culture. I will largely be referring to the First here; the quotation above is from Quatrain 74 in the Fifth.
The poem often locates itself in or around a ‘Caravanserai’ or ‘tavern’, as in this artwork for Quatrain 12 from a 1913 edition of the Rubáiyát, by illustrator Edmund J. Sullivan. The whole book, complete with Sullivan’s wonderful designs, can be read on the Internet Archive. Image located using Wikimedia Commons.
(For those new to the poem, it’s worth pointing out that while this reworking is the most famous in the West, there are many modern versions of the Rubáiyát. I’m familiar with FitzGerald’s and have only seen a few verses from others, so much exploring lies ahead! Ahmad Saidi’s more direct translation is held to be especially good for its focus on Khayyám’s authentic quatrains. The original Persian has also been set to music on multiple occasions. I love Christopher Tin’s ‘Hamsáfár’ in his spectacular album, Calling All Dawns.)
Wine makes its appearance from the very beginning of the poem:
Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
“Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.” (1.2)
A reproduction of the first page from the 1911 Sangorski & Sutcliffe jewel-encrusted edition, known as ‘The Great Omar’. In 1912, it was taken aboard the Titanic for transportation to America and was lost when the ship sank. Image uploaded by Flickr user William Creswell.
Despite how often the theme occurs, FitzGerald claimed in his preface that his verses had ‘perhaps a less than equal proportion of the “Drink and make-merry,” which (genuine or not) recurs over-frequently in the Original’. ‘Liquor’ is established as far more than a means of mere enjoyment or revelry. It is shown to be comparable to the life force of an individual.
Sullivan’s drawing for Quatrain 42 perfectly illustrates the idea of liquor as a life force. Located using Wikimedia Commons.
The call to ‘fill the Cup’ is not sounded because the present is something sorrowful which necessarily needs to be escaped, but because it is a thing of opportunity which needs to be embraced. Conversely, past and future carry problems that were and problems that will be. Wine appears to wipe the slate: ‘Ah, my Belovéd, fill the Cup that clears / TO-DAY of past Regrets and future Fears –’ (1.20).
It is tempting to see this as a Victorian or Persian endorsement of drinking to forget. Wine, however, has deeper properties in the Rubáiyát. With the poem opening at the start of Spring – ‘the New Year reviving old Desires’ (1.4) – it almost seems part of a rebirth ritual:
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing. (1.7)
Sullivan’s take on ‘The Bird of Time’. Located using Wikimedia Commons.
Ever-moving Time allows no space for the ‘Winter Garment’ of former cares: that cold, constricting skin which must be shed and then obliterated in ‘the Fire of Spring’ – not a trace should remain. Even so, to become lost in noticing that Time is being wasted is itself a waste of Time: ‘Ah, fill the Cup: – what boots it to repeat / How Time is slipping underneath our Feet’ (1.37).
In all this, it is worth reflecting on exactly who is speaking. The choice is between two people from very different backgrounds. FitzGerald was a shy and kindly Victorian gentleman who spent his life in scholarly pursuits; the introduction to studying Persian and the collected quatrains came from his close friend, the orientalist Edward B. Cowell.
Khayyám lived from 1048 to 1131 CE and hailed from Nishapur, now in Iran. He was noted in the Islamic world for his work in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. Any reputation for poetry was small, built long after he died, which is when his verses began to be entered in manuscripts. How many he originally composed, if at all, has been frequently scrutinized. Well over 2,000 have been attributed to him through the centuries; authoritative estimates range from 121 to 255.
Many interpretations of Khayyám and Khayyám-like figures exist. This is a 1905 photogravure (or photographic etching) by Adelaide Hanscom. Located using Wikimedia Commons.
So we have Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát…of Omar Khayyám: part translation, part invention, part combination. It is what Michael Kerney terms in his 1887 preface ‘a feat of marvellous poetical transfusion’. The result is a mixed attitude on life, the universe, and of course, wine.
For all its insistence on paying less heed to the looming future, the Rubáiyát is still acknowledging of fate. That is not to suggest that it fully accepts it; slight awareness of the matter is sufficient. As with Time, to be any more concerned is unnecessary. It is as if a drinker pauses mid-sip to briefly peek above the rim, notes encroaching Destiny, then returns full attention to their cup. The understanding that some things simply can’t be changed is more than enough.
Likewise, there are some enquiries which stubbornly refuse to yield answers. To be any more involved is maddeningly fruitless, and wine offers a pleasing alternative:
How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit. (1.39)
Sullivan’s illustration for Quatrain 41. Located used Wikimedia Commons.
One verse takes its imagery to more miraculous levels, likening the Grape to the ‘subtle Alchemist’ that can ‘in a Trice / Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute’ (1.43). This ability to rejuvenate and transform leads to the speaker’s devotional awe. Wine can later be seen to occupy a ceremonial role, trickling through the processes of living and dying:
Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,
And wash my Body whence the Life has died,
And in a Windingsheet of Vine-leaf wrapt,
So bury me by some sweet Garden-side. (1.67)
The presence of wine and vine up to the very end: Sullivan’s depiction of Quatrain 67. Located using Wikimedia Commons.
In the opening to the Fifth Edition is a description of the tavern which turns it into a place of worship:
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?” (5.2)
Away from the invigorating power of the Cup, the devotee is practically asleep. Perhaps the ‘drowsy Worshipper’ could be compared to the dozy follower of everyday life, much in need of a wake-up call. Indeed, it might be said that Life – with a capital ‘L’ – is just one big tavern:
Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultán after Sultán with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way. (1.16)
Movement through the ‘batter’d Caravanserai’ of Quatrain 16, according to Sullivan. Located using Wikimedia Commons.
Given the various attitudes towards wine in the poem and noting the Islamic prohibition of alcohol, another question is raised: Did Khayyám himself actually drink? It may be surprising to learn that FitzGerald abstained and also largely followed a vegetarian diet, but what of Omar? From a historical perspective, grape growing and wine production is known to have continued in Medieval Persia despite religious laws, while praise of the drink is regularly found in the writings of later prominent poets like Rumi and Hafiz.
Bearing in mind that FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát is a hybrid work, it might be better to consider Khayyám’s own writing. Iranian scholar Ali Dashti has found that very few of the original quatrains focus on the drinking of wine, and that ‘the further the anthologies are from Khayyám’s own time, the greater the tendency is to include verses devoted to wine-drinking pure and simple’.
Courtly entertainment with music and drinks for Bahram Gur, a king of the Sassanid Dynasty of Persia. As featured in a manuscript of Ferdowsi’s Persian epic poem, Shahnameh (‘Book of Kings’). This is the same ‘Bahrám, that great Hunter’ referred to in Quatrain 17. A bequest of Frank L. Babbott to the Brooklyn Museum, located using Wikimedia Commons.
Where Khayyám personally stood on drinking wine is a hazy issue – why be caught in ‘infinite Pursuit / Of This and That endeavour and dispute’? More important, as Dashti also finds, is to appreciate what the wine stands for. This is neatly illustrated by Quatrain 21 of the First Edition:
Lo! some that we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.
Much in the same way that the concept of the tavern was applied to Life, so humans are turned into living fruits of the vine. Unsettling as the image of harvest in the second line might be, key to note is that the few who have ‘drunk their Cup a Round or two before’ are those who have been able to head ‘silently to Rest’. That quiet satisfaction in approaching the end comes from having lived the best life possible. It seems that the true instruction behind every call to drink is to ‘make the most of what we yet may spend, / Before we too into the Dust descend’ (1.23).
Quiet satisfaction in Sullivan’s drawing for Quatrain 56. Located using Wikimedia Commons.
Losing oneself in the pleasures of the Grape is less a literal act and more a synonym for drinking deeply from the Cup of Life; wandering in the noise of existence, it is essential to keep an eye on the inevitable without becoming too preoccupied. As FitzGerald puts it:
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee. (1.45)
Whether in a lively tavern or the ‘batter’d Caravanserai’ of Life, the ultimate lesson of the Rubáiyát applies: Whatever grapes Life gives you, make the very best wine that you can.
I’ll drink to that.