Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám summary poem

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Title Meaning
.......Rubái is a Farsi word for quatrain, a four-line poetry stanza. The plural of rubái is
rubáiyát. Thus, a literal English rendering of the title of this famous poem is The
Quatrains of Omar Khayyám. (Farsi is the language that has been spoken in Iran since
the about the ninth century AD. It is written with Arabic characters.)
Meter and Rhyme Scheme
The poem is in iambic pentameter. In most stanzas, the rhyme scheme is aaba—that
is, the first, second, and fourth lines have end rhyme. However, in a few stanzas, all
four lines rhyme. Here are examples of both rhyme schemes.
Stanza 1 Rhyme Scheme: aaba
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
Stanza 10 Rhyme Scheme: aaaa
With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.
Carpe Diem (Seize the Day)
.......The poet, who refers to himself as "old Khayyám," is unable to commit himself to
belief in an afterlife. Consequently, he believes in living for today:
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and—sans End!
Wine as the Water of Life
.......In a universe that refuses to reveal the ultimate destiny of man, the only intelligent
way for one to relieve the anxiety about his fate, old Khayyám says, is to drink the
Lethe of wine. In its intoxicating nectar, one may forget the past and the future, living
only for the pleasure of the moment. Wine, of course, can symbolize aesthetic and
intellectual pleasures, as well as physical ones.
.......Pervading the poem is a sense of helplessness against forces beyond the control
of man. The universe, time, and of course fate will have their way no matter what man
does to counteract their power. Stanza 51 presents fate as a Moving Finger that
writes man's destiny:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Ineluctable Death
.......Khayyám strikes a somber, melancholy note when he continually reminds
the reader that death will ultimately claim everyone. And after it does, he says,
what then?
Imagery Popularizes the Poem
.......The Rubáiyát is one of the most popular poems in the English language, thanks in
good measure to the soaring imagery. Consider, for example, the first stanza:
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
The stanza presents two arresting personifications, the first when Morning chases the
stars away and the second when the sun, the Hunter of the East, lassoes the Sultan's
Turret with a rope of light. (According to FitzGerald's notes, "[f]linging a stone into the
Cup was the signal for 'To Horse!' in the Desert.") The alliteration of Stone and Stars
and the metaphor Noose of Light also make these lines memorable.
.......In stanza 17, striking animal imagery mocks the memory of once mighty Jamshyd,
a mythological Persian king, and Bahram, a king (AD 420-438) in the Sassanian
dynasty of ancient Iran renowned for his skill at hunting:
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter—the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.
.......Stanza 95 laments the passing of time with melancholy images appealing to sight,
smell, and sound.
Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!.
Summary of the Poem
Note: The following uses first-person point of view in summarizing and paraphrasing
the speaker of the poem. Indented passages and words in quotation marks are exactly
as they appear in the poem.
.......As dawn drives out darkness, I dream of a voice in the tavern crying out to fill the
cup before life’s liquor runs dry. A rooster crows. Those at the tavern door beg entry,
saying, “You know how little while we have to stay, / And, once departed, may return
no more."
.......Of course, now at the beginning of spring, there is time for the thoughtful soul to
visit the solitude of the garden. There he will see blossoms as white as the hand of
Moses after God spoke to him (Exodus 4:6)—blossoms that perfume the air like the
breath of Jesus. He will also see grapes on the vine. How lucky we are to have
gardens with grapes. How lucky we are to have gardens at all. Consider Iram, King
Shaddad's stupendous garden city. The desert sands have swallowed it. All of its
beautiful roses—gone. (The Arabian Nights tells the story of King Shaddad and Iram.
Sir Richard Burton's 1850 translation of of the work says that Iram was a great city of
gold and silver with streets paved with rubies and pearls and planted with trees bearing
yellow fruit.) Gone too are flowers resembling the magical cup of Jamshyd. (Jamshyd,
or Jamshid, was a mythical Persian king.)
.......But there are grapes. And if there are grapes, there will be wine. In recognition of
the grape as the fruit of fruits, the nightingale cries out to a yellow rose in ancient
Sanskrit (an ancient language of India) that its petals must blazon with red.
.......In this fire of spring, one must fill the cup and fling off winter, for there is no time to
waste. Time is a swift bird now on the wing. Come with me, old Khayyam, and let
others lie about as they may. Even when people practicing Hatim Tai—that well-known
tradition of generosity—call you to supper, heed them not.
.......Yes, come with me along a strip of herbage that divides the desert from the
garden, and we fill find a place beneath a bough. There, with a loaf of bread, a jug of
wine, a book of verse, and you beside me singing, our wilderness will become a
.......How sweet is the here and now. Although others await a better life, I say take the
cash in hand and forget the rest. The worldly hope men set their hearts upon either
turns to ashes or it prospers; but when it prospers, it is gone in an hour or two, like
snow that lights upon the desert. Thus, those who harvest golden grain and those who
throw it to the wind are alike in their in their fate.
.......In this battered inn that is life—an inn whose doorways are day and night—Sultan
after Sultan sojourned an hour or two, then went his way. Now the lion and the lizard
keep the courts where Jamshyd once sat in glory and drank deep; even the Sassanian
sovereign Bahram now lies in sleep.
.......I sometimes think the rose is never so red as where some buried ruler, some
Caesar, bled; and every hyacinth in the garden springs from what was once a lovely
head. And this delightful herb whose green adorns the edge of the river—lean upon it
lightly, for who knows from what lovely lip it rises.
.......Ah, fill the cup that makes us forget past regrets and future fears. Who knows what
tomorrow may bring.
.......Lo! Some that we loved as the best that time and fate could produce have already
drunk their cup and now lie at rest. And we who now make merry when summer
blooms will one day also lie beneath the couch of earth.
.......So make the most of the pleasures we have left to us before we too settle into dust
without wine, or song, or singer. Keep in mind these words:
Alike for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
And those that after a TO-MORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
"Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There."
(A muezzen is a crier who calls Muslims to prayer from the tower of a mosque.)
.......Saints and wise men who have discussed this world and the hereafter now lie
silent, their words scattered to the wind and their mouths stopped with dust. Therefore,
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
.......When I was young, I spoke frequently with philosophers and holy men about death
and what comes after, and I always went out the door the same way I went in. Oh, yes,
I tried hard to coax to life the seed of their wisdom, but I reaped no harvest. All I know
for certain is that one day I will go out of this universe to I know not where.
.......Up from the earth I came and rose higher and higher, and many problems I solved
along the way. But I could not unravel the knot of human death and fate, for
There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed—and then no more of THEE and ME.
.......On some days, the rolling Heav'n itself I cried,
Asking, "What Lamp had Destiny to guide
Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?"
And—"A blind understanding!" Heav'n replied.
.......And then did I return to the earthen vessel to drink and learn the secret of the well
of life, and it murmured to me, "While you live,
Drink!—for once dead you never shall return." I think that vessel must once have lived
a merry life.
.......At dusk one day in the marketplace, I watched a potter thumping his clay, and it
murmured, “Gently, brother, gently, pray!"
.......Ah, fill the cup. Why worry about unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday when
today is sweet. It is better to be merry with the grape than sad with bitter fruit. Years
ago I learned this lesson and banished reason from my bed and took the daughter of
the vine as my spouse. The grape can transmute leaden metal into gold.
.......Destiny plays games with men, who are but pieces on a checkerboard to be
moved and slain. The moving finger of fate writes its tale, and nothing we do can
cancel a line. Our tears cannot wash away a single word. But do not lift your hands for
help to that inverted bowl, the sky, for it rolls on, heedless.
And this I know: whether the one True Light,
Kindle to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,
One Glimpse of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.
Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken'd, Man's Forgiveness give—and take!
.......In a potter’s shop one evening at the close of Ramadan (the ninth month of the
Muslim calendar which each day requires fasting and abstaining from sexual
intercourse from dawn to dusk), I stood alone with the population of clay creations.
One of them spoke: “Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?"
Then said another—Surely not in vain
My substance from the common Earth was ta'en,
That He who subtly wrought me into Shape
Should stamp me back to common Earth again."
Another said—"Why, ne'er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in Joy;
Shall He that made the Vessel in pure Love
And Fancy, in an after Rage destroy!"
None answer'd this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
"They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
What? did the Hand then of the Potter shake?"
.......A misshapen piece of pottery then said, "They sneer at me for leaning all awry: /
What? did the Hand then of the Potter shake?" Another vessel said he had gone dry
over time but that filling him with wine would rejuvenate him. Ah, as my life plays out,
give me wine. And when I die, wash my body in wine and wrap it in the leaves of the
vine. Then bury me by some sweet garden, where I may perfume the air. Oh, I have
paid homage to the idols, but it did me little credit in men’s eyes. And I have repented
of my sins—but was I sober at the time? When spring came, my repentance was torn
asunder. Too bad that spring should end and, with it, sweet-scented youth. The moon
of heaven is now rising again. And how often will she rise hereafter to look for me in
this same garden—in vain! And when you yourself shall one day walk among those at
rest under the grass and reach the spot where I lie, “turn down an empty Glass!