Emma Park celebrates the great Persian poem in praise of sitting around under a tree drinking wine with your beloved
The Rubáiyát Of Omar Khayyám is one of those poems that’s so quotable it’s tempting to cite the whole thing and say, “There!”
In a nutshell it’s about the age-old theme of seizing the day. Its message, in one of its many memorable lines, is deceptively simple: “Drink! – for once dead you never shall return.” The poem is presented as a one-sided conversation by “old Khayyám”, a tipsy poet, with his unnamed “Beloved”.
From the dawn with which the poem begins to the dusk at its end, they sit in a picturesque garden on a riverbank, drinking red wine. It is the first month of summer: roses bloom and nightingales sing.
As Khayyám surveys the scene around him, what strikes him is its transience. Lovers, roses, grass, nightingales, drinking pots – all are made of the same matter and are constantly being recycled, one into another.
When he was young, he says, he tried to work out what it all meant, both on his own and with the help of the “Saints and Sages” of an unspecified religion. But he’s not persuaded by their promise of a “Paradise to come”. After all, he observes, even sages end up as dust or clay: person today, pot tomorrow.
As he grows tipsier, Khayyám expresses his scorn for religious doctrine more forcefully. Let us be under no illusion, he says: if God created the world, then He alone is responsible for its temptations and pitfalls – including wine. No sage has ever given a satisfactory explanation of where we come from or where we go after death. The universe shows no signs of having been constructed for our benefit. On the contrary, it is “nothing but a magic Shadow-show”, and we are “phantom Figures” flitting around for a while, with no control over our fate or ability to understand it.
Towards evening and the end of the poem Khayyám’s mood changes again and he becomes wistful and nostalgic, mourning the loss of his youth and anticipating his death. But even then he remains unrepentant, insisting he has never found anything more precious than wine and the delights of spring. With philosophical detachment he asks his beloved to bury him “by some sweet Garden-side”. He mischievously imagines the alcoholic fumes from his ashes rising up to intoxicate a “True Believer” as he walks past.
From a longer piece in Idler 80, Sept/Oct 2021. Order here.