Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Notes

Updated September 14, 2021 | Infoplease Staff


[The references are, except in the first note only, to the stanzas of the Fifth edition.]

(Stanza I.) Flinging a Stone into the Cup was the signal for "To Horse!" in the Desert.

(II.) The "False Dawn"; Subhi Kazib, a transient Light on the Horizon about an hour before the Subhi sadik or True Dawn; a well-known Phenomenon in the East.

(IV.) New Year. Beginning with the Vernal Equinox, it must be remembered; and (howsoever the old Solar Year is practically superseded by the clumsy Lunar Year that dates from the Mohammedan Hijra) still commemorated by a Festival that is said to have been appointed by the very Jamshyd whom Omar so often talks of, and whose yearly Calendar he helped to rectify.

"The sudden approach and rapid advance of the Spring," says Mr. Binning, "are very striking. Before the Snow is well off the Ground, the Trees burst into Blossom, and the Flowers start from the Soil. At Naw Rooz (their New Year's Day) the Snow was lying in patches on the Hills and in the shaded Vallies, while the Fruit-trees in the Garden were budding beautifully, and green Plants and Flowers springing upon the Plains on every side-

'And on old Hyems' Chin and icy Crown An odorous Chaplet of sweet Summer buds Is, as in mockery, set-'-

Among the Plants newly appear'd I recognized some Acquaintances I had not seen for many a Year: among these, two varieties of the Thistle; a coarse species of the Daisy, like the Horse-gowan; red and white clover; the Dock; the blue Cornflower; and that vulgar Herb the Dandelion rearing its yellow crest on the Banks of the Water-courses." The Nightingale was not yet heard, for the Rose was not yet blown: but an almost identical Blackbird and Woodpecker helped to make up something of a North-country Spring.

"The White Hand of Moses." Exodus iv. 6; where Moses draws forth his Hand-not, according to the Persians, "leprous as Snow," but white, as our May-blossom in Spring perhaps. According to them also the Healing Power of Jesus resided in his Breath.

(V.) Iram, planted by King Shaddad, and now sunk somewhere in the Sands of Arabia. Jamshyd's Seven-ring'd Cup was typical of the 7 Heavens, 7 Planets, 7 Seas, &c., and was a Divining Cup.

(VI.) Pehlevi, the old Heroic Sanskrit of Persia. Hafiz also speaks of the Nightingale's Pehlevi, which did not change with the People's.

I am not sure if the fourth line refers to the Red Rose looking sickly, or to the Yellow Rose that ought to be Red; Red, White, and Yellow Roses all common in Persia. I think that Southey in his Common- Place Book, quotes from some Spanish author about the Rose being White till 10 o'clock; "Rosa Perfecta" at 2; and "perfecta incarnada" at 5.

(X.) Rustum, the "Hercules" of Persia, and Zal his Father, whose exploits are among the most celebrated in the Shahnama. Hatim Tai, a well-known type of Oriental Generosity.

(XIII.) A Drum-beaten outside a Palace.

(XIV.) That is, the Rose's Golden Centre.

(XVIII.) Persepolis: call'd also Takht-i-Jam-shyd-THE THRONE OF JAMSHYD, "King Splendid," of the mythical Peshdadian Dynasty, and supposed (according to the Shah-nama) to have been founded and built by him. Others refer it to the Work of the Genie King, Jan Ibn Jan-who also built the Pyramids-before the time of Adam.

BAHRAM GUR.-Bahram of the Wild Ass-a Sassanian Sovereign-had also his Seven Castles (like the King of Bohemia!) each of a different Colour: each with a Royal Mistress within; each of whom tells him a Story, as told in one of the most famous Poems of Persia, written by Amir Khusraw: all these Sevens also figuring (according to Eastern Mysticism) the Seven Heavens; and perhaps the Book itself that Eighth, into which the mystical Seven transcend, and within which they revolve. The Ruins of Three of those Towers are yet shown by the Peasantry; as also the Swamp in which Bahram sunk, like the Master of Ravenswood, while pursuing his Gur.

The Palace that to Heav'n his pillars threw, And Kings the forehead on his threshold drew- I saw the solitary Ringdove there, And "Coo, coo, coo," she cried; and "Coo, coo, coo."

[Included in Nicolas's edition as No. 350 of the Rubaiyat, and also in Mr. Whinfield's translation.]

This Quatrain Mr. Binning found, among several of Hafiz and others, inscribed by some stray hand among the ruins of Persepolis. The Ringdove's ancient Pehlevi Coo, Coo, Coo, signifies also in Persian "Where? Where? Where?" In Attar's "Bird-parliament" she is reproved by the Leader of the Birds for sitting still, and for ever harping on that one note of lamentation for her lost Yusuf.

Apropos of Omar's Red Roses in Stanza xix, I am reminded of an old English Superstition, that our Anemone Pulsatilla, or purple "Pasque Flower," (which grows plentifully about the Fleam Dyke, near Cambridge,) grows only where Danish Blood has been spilt.

(XXI.) A thousand years to each Planet.

(XXXI.) Saturn, Lord of the Seventh Heaven.

(XXXII.) ME-AND-THEE: some dividual Existence or Personality distinct from the Whole.

(XXXVII.) One of the Persian Poets-Attar, I think-has a pretty story about this. A thirsty Traveller dips his hand into a Spring of Water to drink from. By-and-by comes another who draws up and drinks from an earthen bowl, and then departs, leaving his Bowl behind him. The first Traveller takes it up for another draught; but is surprised to find that the same Water which had tasted sweet from his own hand tastes bitter from the earthen Bowl. But a Voice-from Heaven, I think-tells him the clay from which the Bowl is made was once Man; and, into whatever shape renew'd, can never lose the bitter flavour of Mortality.

(XXXIX.) The custom of throwing a little Wine on the ground before drinking still continues in Persia, and perhaps generally in the East. Mons. Nicolas considers it "un signe de liberalite, et en meme temps un avertissement que le buveur doit vider sa coupe jusqu'a la derniere goutte." Is it not more likely an ancient Superstition; a Libation to propitiate Earth, or make her an Accomplice in the illicit Revel? Or, perhaps, to divert the Jealous Eye by some sacrifice of superfluity, as with the Ancients of the West? With Omar we see something more is signified; the precious Liquor is not lost, but sinks into the ground to refresh the dust of some poor Wine-worshipper foregone.

Thus Hafiz, copying Omar in so many ways: "When thou drinkest Wine pour a draught on the ground. Wherefore fear the Sin which brings to another Gain?"

(XLIII.) According to one beautiful Oriental Legend, Azrael accomplishes his mission by holding to the nostril an Apple from the Tree of Life.

This, and the two following Stanzas would have been withdrawn, as somewhat de trop, from the Text, but for advice which I least like to disregard.

(LI.) From Mah to Mahi; from Fish to Moon.

(LVI.) A Jest, of course, at his Studies. A curious mathematical Quatrain of Omar's has been pointed out to me; the more curious because almost exactly parallel'd by some Verses of Doctor Donne's, that are quoted in Izaak Walton's Lives! Here is Omar: "You and I are the image of a pair of compasses; though we have two heads (sc. our feet) we have one body; when we have fixed the centre for our circle, we bring our heads (sc. feet) together at the end." Dr. Donne:

If we be two, we two are so As stiff twin-compasses are two; Thy Soul, the fixt foot, makes no show To move, but does if the other do.

And though thine in the centre sit, Yet when my other far does roam, Thine leans and hearkens after it, And rows erect as mine comes home.

Such thou must be to me, who must Like the other foot obliquely run; Thy firmness makes my circle just, And me to end where I begun.

(LIX.) The Seventy-two Religions supposed to divide the World, including Islamism, as some think: but others not.

(LX.) Alluding to Sultan Mahmud's Conquest of India and its dark people.

(LXVIII.) Fanusi khiyal, a Magic-lanthorn still used in India; the cylindrical Interior being painted with various Figures, and so lightly poised and ventilated as to revolve round the lighted Candle within.

(LXX.) A very mysterious Line in the Original:

O danad O danad O danad O-

breaking off something like our Wood-pigeon's Note, which she is said to take up just where she left off.

(LXXV.) Parwin and Mushtari-The Pleiads and Jupiter.

(LXXXVII.) This Relation of Pot and Potter to Man and his Maker figures far and wide in the Literature of the World, from the time of the Hebrew Prophets to the present; when it may finally take the name of "Pot theism," by which Mr. Carlyle ridiculed Sterling's "Pantheism." My Sheikh, whose knowledge flows in from all quarters, writes to me-

"Apropos of old Omar's Pots, did I ever tell you the sentence I found in 'Bishop Pearson on the Creed'? 'Thus are we wholly at the disposal of His will, and our present and future condition framed and ordered by His free, but wise and just, decrees. Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? (Rom. ix. 21.) And can that earth-artificer have a freer power over his brother potsherd (both being made of the same metal), than God hath over him, who, by the strange fecundity of His omnipotent power, first made the clay out of nothing, and then him out of that?'"

And again-from a very different quarter-"I had to refer the other day to Aristophanes, and came by chance on a curious Speaking-pot story in the Vespae, which I had quite forgotten.

[Greek text deleted from etext.]

"The Pot calls a bystander to be a witness to his bad treatment. The woman says, 'If, by Proserpine, instead of all this 'testifying' (comp. Cuddie and his mother in 'Old Mortality!') you would buy yourself a rivet, it would show more sense in you!' The Scholiast explains echinus as [Greek phrase deleted from etext]."

One more illustration for the oddity's sake from the "Autobiography of a Cornish Rector," by the late James Hamley Tregenna. 1871.

"There was one odd Fellow in our Company-he was so like a Figure in the 'Pilgrim's Progress' that Richard always called him the 'ALLEGORY,' with a long white beard-a rare Appendage in those days-and a Face the colour of which seemed to have been baked in, like the Faces one used to see on Earthenware Jugs. In our Country- dialect Earthenware is called 'Clome'; so the Boys of the Village used to shout out after him-'Go back to the Potter, Old Clomeface, and get baked over again.' For the 'Allegory,' though shrewd enough in most things, had the reputation of being 'saift-baked,' i.e., of weak intellect."

(XC.) At the Close of the Fasting Month, Ramazan (which makes the Mussulman unhealthy and unamiable), the first Glimpse of the New Moon (who rules their division of the Year) is looked for with the utmost Anxiety, and hailed with Acclamation. Then it is that the Porter's Knot maybe heard-toward the Cellar. Omar has elsewhere a pretty Quatrain about the same Moon-

"Be of Good Cheer-the sullen Month will die, And a young Moon requite us by and by: Look how the Old one meagre, bent, and wan With Age and Fast, is fainting from the Sky!"

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