Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Category: Gastronomy and Fiction

The Owl and the Pussycat 2

The Runcible Spoon

First printed in 1870, Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ is a much-loved children’s poem and one of the best-known examples of nonsense verse. It most famously features Lear’s ‘runcible spoon’, an invented piece of cutlery which makes its appearance in the final verse:

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

So what exactly is a runcible spoon? The poem, after all, gives only the name and no clue as to the shape. Modern definitions suggest that it is ‘a fork curved like a spoon, with three broad prongs, one of which has a sharpened outer edge for cutting’. This might at first imply that Edward Lear came up with the concept for the spork!

SporkA spork? Or a runcible spoon? Image from Flickr user Brennen Bearnes. The featured image for this article is from Flickr user sammydavisdog.

However, Lear gives no written definition for ‘runcible spoon’, and it is a bit of a mystery where the spork-style meaning has come from. That said, the poet may have provided a definition of a more visual kind. The utensil crops up again in his 1872 collection, More nonsense, pictures, rhymes, botany, where he writes of ‘The Dolomphious Duck, who caught Spotted Frogs for her dinner with a Runcible Spoon’. This is accompanied with an illustration of said duck and spoon by the man himself.

Lear_Runcible_spoonEdward Lear’s illustration of the ‘runcible spoon’. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Going by this, a runcible spoon is some sort of ladle. The Oxford English Dictionary recognises the spork-type definition as a later usage and states that in Lear’s work, a runcible spoon is simply ‘a type of spoon’ (what an anti-climax!). It adds that the adjective ‘runcible’ might have been formed from ‘rouncival’, a type of garden pea.

Other sources have suggested that ‘runcible’ was coined to make fun of Robert Runcie, who worked as a butler for Lear’s patron, the Earl of Derby – one of his jobs being to polish the earl’s set of silver spoons! Or it was created as a reference to the poet’s friend, George Runcy, who designed a special spoon for children in the belief that they should learn to feed themselves as soon as possible. There is no solid evidence to support either theory.

It is dangerous to start reading too deeply into such a simple word – this is nonsense, after all! Lear appears to have used the adjective on multiple other occasions in his poetry. In More nonsense, he refers to ‘the Rural Runcible Raven, who wore a White Wig and flew away with the Carpet Broom’. Later writings mention ‘Aunt Jobiska’s Runcible Cat’ (it has ‘crimson whiskers’, apparently), a ‘runcible hat’, and a ‘runcible wall’.

Runcible RavenEdward Lear’s illustration of the ‘Rural Runcible Raven’. Image from Two Hundred Years of Nonsense: The Works of Edward Lear – an excellent site for getting acquainted with Lear’s weird and wonderful work.

The simplest conclusion is this: Edward Lear happened to come up with the word ‘runcible’, and liked its sound. While not the most satisfying conclusion, it is sensibly nonsensical!

It would be best for everyone’s sanity to leave things there, I think. If, by chance, the Owl and the Pussycat’s meal of mince and ‘slices of quince’ has suddenly reminded you of mince pies and you are now wondering why something as sweet as a mince pie has such a savoury name, there’s a much clearer answer for that question in this piece on ‘Mince Pies Through Time’…

Banana

‘Day-O’: ‘The Banana Boat Song’

There’s nothing like identifying a song that has been repeating in your head – a song which seems to have jumbled lyrics and no clear name. In my present case, that turned out to be ‘Day-O’, also known as ‘The Banana Boat Song’. Thank you, Google!

For a while, I had the phrases ‘Hey Mr Banana-Man’ and ‘Hey Mr Taliban’ going round and round my mind. The correct version is, of course: ‘Come Mister Tally-man, tally me banana / Daylight come and me wan’ go home.’ (Bananaman is a British superhero, and ‘Hey Mr Taliban’ is an unfortunate parody of the song.)

Harry BelafonteHarry Belafonte made ‘The Banana Boat Song’ immensely popular with his 1956 rendition, ‘Day-O’. Image from the Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress.

Have a listen to the famous song by American singer Harry Belafonte, which you will almost certainly have heard before. The lyrics are:

Day-O! Day-O!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Day! Me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day-o!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Work all night on a drink o’ rum!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Stack banana till de mornin’ come!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Come, Mister Tally-man, tally me banana,
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Come, Mister Tally-man, tally me banana,
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Lift six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Day! Me say day-o!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Day! Me say day, me say day, me say day…
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

A beautiful bunch o’ ripe banana!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Hide de deadly black tarantula!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Lift six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Day! Me say day-o!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Day! Me say day, me say day, me say day…
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Come, Mister Tally-man, tally me banana,
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Come, Mister Tally-man, tally me banana,
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Day-O! Day-O!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
Day! Me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day-o!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

A modified version of lyrics written by YouTuber Kristin Crumpler.

Jamaican Postage StampA three-pence Jamaican stamp, possibly from the 1930s, featuring an image of a banana-labourer and a profile of King George VI. Image from Flickr user Mark Morgan.

‘Day-O’ is said to be based on a Jamaican folk song known to the locals as ‘The Banana Boat Song’ – supposedly sung by labourers offloading bananas from ships at the docks. Prior to Belafonte’s 1956 hit, an earlier version was released by Trinidadian singers Edric Connor and the Caribbeans in 1952.

While most place the origin of ‘The Banana Boat Song’ in Jamaica, some suggest it may have come from Trinidad. Either way, it’s a catchy work song which has made a place for itself in popular culture with everything from numerous covers to its use in the 1988 Tim Burton classic, Beetlejuice. Happy listening!

Lembas Bread

Lord of the Lembas

20 October 2015 calls for a ‘long-expected party’: The Lord of the Rings turns 60! Back in 1955, this day saw the completion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s high fantasy classic with the publication of The Return of the King, third and last part of the series.

Celebrating the occasion from a Feast and Phrase point of view, I thought I would take a look at some of the food and drink featured in the series. Yes, my nerd level is over 9000. But this would have hobbit approval – hobbits being the foodies of Middle Earth, supposedly fond of ‘six meals a day (when they could get them)’.

Second BreakfastSilly hobbitses. Taken from Giphy.

And what celebration would be complete without food and drink? As Tolkien describes Bilbo’s party:

‘When every guest had been welcomed and was finally inside the gate, there were songs, dances, music, games, and, of course, food and drink. There were three official meals: lunch, tea, and dinner (or supper). But lunch and tea were marked chiefly by the fact that at those times all the guests were sitting down and eating together. At other times there were merely lots of people eating and drinking — continuously from elevenses until six-thirty, when the fireworks started.’

‘A Long-Expected Party’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Baggins HomeBilbo Baggins’ home in New Zealand (also known as Middle Earth). Uploaded by Flickr user Tom Hall.

With their love of ‘peace and quiet and good tilled earth’, Tolkien’s hobbits are like folk right out of a pleasant English country village, and their food is very much the same – rustic and homely:

‘One or two other hobbits belonging to the farm-household came in. In a short while fourteen sat down to eat. There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, besides much other solid farmhouse fare.’

‘A Shortcut to Mushrooms’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

MushroomHobbits love mushrooms. Image located via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s almost like comforting pub grub. A hobbit-hole does mean comfort, after all. Not something easily forgotten when you’re miles from home, trekking through the wilderness – as is the case when Gollum brings Sam some freshly-caught rabbits:

Gollum withdrew grumbling, and crawled into the fern. Sam busied himself with his pans. ‘What a hobbit needs with coney,’ he said to himself, ‘is some herbs and roots, especially taters – not to mention bread. Herbs we can manage, seemingly.’

‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’, The Two Towers.

Master Gamgee’s carb cravings lead to that ‘famous’ exchange:

‘[…] What’s taters, precious, eh, what’s taters?’
‘Po – ta – toes,’ said Sam. ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good Sméagol and fetch me the herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters one of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.’
‘Yes, yes we could. Spoiling nice fish, scorching it. Give me fish now, and keep nassty chips!’
‘Oh you’re hopeless,’ said Sam. ‘Go to sleep!’

‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’, The Two Towers.

Like ‘They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard’, this has also had the Internet honour of being remixed.

Potatoes GIFA classic scene. Taken from Giphy.

One of the main sources of energy for Frodo and Sam is of course lembas, also known as ‘waybread’: the long-lasting, stomach-filling bread of the Elves. It’s almost like a shortbread version of trail-mix, if you go by Tolkien’s description: ‘The food was mostly in the form of very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream.’ Not just any shortbread, as the Elves point out:

‘[…] it is much more strengthening than any food made by Men, and it is more pleasant than cram, by all accounts. […] The cakes will keep sweet for many many days, if they are unbroken and left in their leaf-wrappings, as we have brought them. One will keep a traveller on his feet for a day of long labour, even if he be one of the tall Men of Minas Tirith.’

‘Farewell to Lórien’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Lembas 2Homemade lembas. From a recipe featured on Brielle’s Notions. The featured image for this article is from the same location.

Cram is the human equivalent of lembas, and just doesn’t cut it. That said, there are some interesting fan recipes for lembas online. I guess the Uruk-Hai equivalent is ‘man-flesh’ (needless to say, don’t Google for recipes…). The Uruk-Hai also drink a ‘burning liquid’; one of the troop forces an exhausted Pippin to take a swig, which leaves him with a ‘hot fierce glow’. Where’s a St Bernard when you need one?

The other notable drink is the water of the tree-herding Ents, which puts Miracle-Gro to utter shame. As Gimli remarks on reuniting with Merry and Pippin:

‘Why, your hair is twice as thick and curly as when we parted; and I would swear that you have both grown somewhat, if that is possible for hobbits of your age. This Treebeard at any rate has not starved you.’

‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, The Two Towers.

EntAnother modern re-imagining of Tolkien’s Ents. Uploaded by Pixabay user jetstar101.

And there you have it: a quick sweep of some of Middle Earth’s food and drink. Happy 60th Birthday, Lord of the Rings!

Pomegranate Seeds

Persephone and Pomegranate Seeds

The end of August was crashed by cold September, announcing itself a day early with drizzle and greyness – a Bank Holiday weekend running as expected. As also expected, I layered up and complained: ‘Why, Weather? August is sunshine. September has not officially started. YOU ARE CONFUSED.’

Something like that.

Anyhow, all this got me thinking about pomegranate seeds. Not immediately, of course: I began mulling over how cultures worldwide have been influenced by the inevitable coming and going of the seasons (dreary and grim as Monday was, it also appears to have been rather philosophical. Thank you, Weather). Artistic work of every kind has drawn on the different characteristics of the year. There have also been various explanations for why the seasons exist in the first place – and when my train of thought passed here, I remembered an Ancient Greek myth in which pomegranate seeds play a crucial part in bringing the seasons about.

512px-Bust_Homer_BM_1825_n2A Roman bust of Homer, after a Greek original. Photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen and located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image for this article was taken by Flickr user Rebecca Siegel.

That is told in one of the Homeric Hymns: thirty-four poems attributed to Homer which address deities from the Ancient Greek pantheon. The piece in question is dedicated to Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and the story is as follows. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was gathering flowers in a meadow. Unknown to both, Zeus, King of the Gods, had promised Persephone as a bride for his brother Hades, Lord of the Underworld. As Persephone went to pick a narcissus flower, sprouted up as a lure by Gaia – the female personification of Earth, who was complicit in the act – the ground opened up beneath her, and Hades swept out in his chariot, carrying her away. Devastated, Demeter refused the company of the gods on Mount Olympus and wandered among humankind. Longing for her daughter, she brought about famine:

‘[…] she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail. So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with cruel famine and have robbed them who dwell on Olympus of their glorious right of gifts and sacrifices, had not Zeus perceived and marked this in his heart.’

From the translation of ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ found in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica.

843px-Persephone_krater_Antikensammlung_Berlin_1984.40Persephone’s abduction, as featured on a krater – or large vase – from the Greek Southern Italian region of Apulia (c. 340 BCE). Located via Wikimedia Commons

Failing to win her over with entreaties from different deities, Zeus sent the divine messenger Hermes to secure Persephone’s release from Hades: the only thing which would cause Demeter to return. Not one to disobey his brother, Hades agreed – ‘but he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter.’ Reunited, mother and daughter embraced, but all was not well:

‘But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, her heart suddenly misgave her for some snare, so that she feared greatly and ceased fondling her daughter and asked of her at once: ‘My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and be honoured by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men.’

From the translation of ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ found in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica.

That, perhaps, is why the land lies barren for part of the year, and bursts into life in another.

Split PomegranateA split pomegranate, photographed by Flickr user Ano Lobb.

Pomegranate’ ultimately derives from the Latin pomum granatum, meaning ‘apple with many seeds’; Middle French variants include pomme grenade and pomme granade, with pome gernate in the later Anglo-Norman language. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was also referred to as a ‘grenade’ or ‘granade’, coming via French from the Spanish granada. The explosive weapon of the same name takes after this and was supposedly called so for its resemblance to the fruit – possibly through shape, or through comparison of its shrapnel to many seeds. An obsolete sense of ‘grenadier’ is ‘pomegranate tree’; the word now survives in the title of the British Army’s highest ranking infantry regiment: the Grenadier Guards.

While the start of September was dingy, it has a deliciously appropriate pay-off: pomegranates are coming into season, which lasts until around January or February. You can enjoy them at your leisure – no trip to Hades and back required!

Humpty Falling

Nursery Rhyme Nibbles

English nursery rhymes abound with images of food, from Jack Sprat’s eating habits to ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. Memorised and recited without a second thought, these instantly recognisable lines and verses seem to hail from a hazy time long gone, where pigs went to market and dishes absconded with spoons. Many, however, are not as old or mysterious as is often assumed.

Folklorists Iona and Peter Opie write in their authoritative Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes that most can be traced back to the seventeenth century, with the term ‘nursery rhyme’ growing in use following the 1806 publication, Rhymes for the Nursery. While earlier printings made references to individual pieces, the first true collection to appear was Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744, featuring ‘Bah, Bah, a black sheep’, ‘Hickere, Dickere, Dock’, and several other songs which are now indisputable classics.

Four_and_Twenty_BlackbirdsAn illustration for ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, from the 1833 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies. In the United States, ‘nursery rhymes’ are also known as ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

The Opies state that the concept of ‘childhood’ as recognized in the present day has developed relatively recently; in past centuries, well into the 1700s, society viewed children as small adults. Few nursery rhymes were originally aimed at children, developing instead from ballads, drinking songs, riddles, and proverbs. Their ‘nursery’ status comes from their having been repeated to children over time by grown-ups, and this spoken heritage has led to widespread myths about the origins of different verses. As one source puts it, they have ‘suffered the indignity of having more nonsense written about them than any other folklore genre’. Cutting past this ‘game of spotting hidden meanings’ to focus on facts allows for a clearer understanding of the colourful range of figures and subjects in each, and what they might stand for – if at all.

Humpty DumptyA classic image of Humpty Dumpty. Uploaded by Flickr user tiffany terry.

Where food is concerned, this can be especially revealing. Take ‘Humpty Dumpty’, for instance:

‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses
And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.’

Imagining a humanized egg is now instinctive, but the rhyme gives no description of this. It was possibly once a riddle, with the answer being ‘an egg’. That function has since died out, due to the solution being such a well-known image; contributing to its spread were illustrations of Humpty as an egg, such as that in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872).

Humpty_Dumpty_TennielJohn Tenniel’s illustration of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

The word puzzle likely played on the meaning of ‘humpty-dumpty’ which was current during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘a short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person’. Going back further brings up one more gastronomical connection, in that it was also the name of a drink consisting of ‘ale boiled with brandy’:

‘He answer’d me that he had a thousand such sort of Liquors, as Humtie Dumtie, Three Threads.’

In William King, A Journey to London (1698).

A popular theory put forward by multiple books and ‘did you know’ websites argues that Humpty Dumpty was not an egg, but a siege engine employed in the English Civil War by the forces of King Charles I – ‘all the King’s men’ – which was toppled from its position. As the Opies point out, this was proposed by one Professor David Daube in 1956 and was ‘one of a series of spoof nursery-rhyme histories for The Oxford Magazine– don’t ‘fall’ for it!

Jack SpratJack Sprat and his wife, as depicted in an 1864 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies. The whole work may be read online.

Another expression for a small person, dating from 1500 to 1700, was ‘Jack Sprat’ (an older form of which was ‘Jack Prat’):

‘Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean:
And so, between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.’

This rhyme, or some variety of it, seems to have been present in the Tudor period. It is referred to in The Marriage of Witte and Science, a play from around 1570. The personified characters Instruction and Wit fight against Tediousness, declaring the following:

INSTRUCTION: […] But what, no force ye are but Jack Sprot to mee.

WITTE: Haue houlde heare is a morsel for thee to eate […]

[INSTRUCTION: No matter, you are just a little person to me.

WIT: Take this – here is a morsel for you to eat! [Strikes TEDIOUSNESS.]]

The Marriage of Witte and Science, Act 5, Scene 5 (c. 1570).

Perhaps ‘Jack Sprat’ came to signify a little person in allusion to the ‘sprat’, a small-sized fish. This was also known as a ‘sprot’, ultimately from the Old English sprott, a small herring’.

SpratAn image of the sprat from the 1877 French publication Les Poissons (‘Fish’). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Little Jack Horner’ has also been linked to the Tudor era:

‘Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie.
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”’

It is claimed that this speaks of Tom Horner, steward to Abbot Richard Whiting of Glastonbury. In a bid to please King Henry VIII, Whiting sent Horner with the gift of a pie, in which were concealed several property deeds, including that of the Manor of Mells. The steward opened it up and took Mells for himself. While there was a historical Thomas Horner who came to possess this manor at the time, he is known to have bought the property. No written mention of this tale has been found before the nineteenth century; the rhyme was first printed in 1725.

Little Jack Horner DenslowWilliam Wallace Denslow’s picture of Little Jack Horner in his 1901 collection, Denslow’s Mother Goose. Located via the Library of Congress.

Incidentally, the notion of ‘having a finger in the pie’ – ‘to be part of something in an interfering or suspicious manner’ – does date to a similar point. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a line from Act 1, Scene 3 of the 1553 dramatic piece Respublica: ‘Bring me in credyte that my hande be in the pye.’ Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s 1623 play Henry VIII has the dialogue:

‘The diuill speed him: No mans Pye is freed
From his Ambitious finger.’

[‘The devil speed him: no man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger.’]

William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, Henry VIII (1623).

Apple Pie FeaturedPictures from Mark’s History of an Apple Pie, which gives one version of the ‘A was an apple pie’ rhyme. The whole work can be read online.

Pies turn up so frequently in English nursery rhymes that it would be impossible not to encounter at least one! There is ‘A was an apple pie’, ‘Dame, get up and bake your pies’, and ‘Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie’. There is the old woman who ‘sold puddings and pies’ and there is the Scottish ‘Aiken Drum’ with his waistcoat made of pie crust. One version of ‘The Derby Ram’ has the creature end up in a pie, while one of ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ suggests that it will be possible to buy ‘a two-penny apple-pie’ at the destination.

Yes – pies are everywhere in nursery rhymes. A thesis on the subject may well exist. According to John Ayto in The Diner’s Dictionary, the earliest occurrences of the word ‘pie’ were in the 1300s; the Yorkshire Lay Subsidy mentions one ‘Rogero Pyman’ selling his wares in 1301. Simple Simon’s ‘pieman’ was part of a longstanding profession, though the rhyme itself belongs to a lengthier fictional piece published in 1764. On the topic of baked goods, the role of ‘The Muffin Man’ was more nineteenth-century, while ‘Hot Cross Buns’ pays homage to the cries of street sellers in the 1700s.

Song of Sixpence‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ in the 1864 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies.

What about ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’? ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ was first printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. There are various theories for what the birds might symbolize – everything from the twenty four hours of the day to hidden property deeds, as in ‘Little Jack Horner’. None are particularly strong. As for putting live birds in pies, the Opies draw attention to the 1549 Italian cooking guide Epulario, in which there are instructions to, in the words of the 1598 English translation, ‘make pies so that the birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up’. The English chef Robert May included a recipe for the same purpose in his monumental 1660 work, The Accomplisht Cook.

Accomplisht CookThe title page of a 1678 copy of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook. From the Wellcome Library, London.

Looking at English nursery rhymes from a factual perspective takes the explorer well beyond the world of children into one of drama, publications, and wordplay. Looking at their depictions of food in the same way highlights historical changes in gastronomical practices and language, whether selling pies or drinking humpty-dumpty.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the astronomer poet of Persia

Wine in the Rubáiyát

‘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.

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-012The poem often locates itself in or around a ‘Caravanserai’ or ‘tavern’, as in this artwork for Quatrain 12 from a 1913 edition of thRubáiyát, 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)

Illuminated first page from a 1910 reproduction of the Sangorski & Sutcliffe manuscript.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.

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-042Sullivan’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)

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-007Sullivan’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.

Edward FitzGeraldA miniature of Edward FitzGerald by Eva Mary Bernard Orr, Lady Rivett-Carnac. After an 1873 photograph of the poet. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Khayyam Figure Adelaide HanscomMany 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)

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-041Sullivan’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)

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-067The 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)

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-016Movement 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’.

Bahram Gur ManuscriptCourtly 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).

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-056Quiet 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.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén