31. Discovering Khyyam

412px-033-Earth-could-not-answer-nor-the-Seas-that-mourn-q75-829x1159My novel A Fond Farewell to Dying opens with a quatrain from the Rubyiat of Omar Khyyam.

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing is certain – This life flies;
        One Thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has bloomed forever dies.
Khyyam/FitzGerald quatrain LXIII

It was the perfect setup for a book about people deeply aware of the fleetingness of life and trying to find their own kind of immortality.

Edward FitzGerald is the scholar whose translation of Khyyam is most widely known. He took a mass of unrelated quatrains, translated and arranged them, and gave them a unified voice. Although called a translator, he might better be called the co-author.

Khyyam was a Persian, but not a Muslim. He was one of the leaders of the old order, recently deposed by Muslim conquest. This accounts for the wine bibbing and the questioning attitude toward God, which otherwise would seem odd, even dangerous, among the Sultans, camels, turbans, and oases which fill the poems.

I first encountered Khyyam on a high school field trip to visit nearby University of Tulsa. I managed to sneak a moment in the university bookstore, and bought the most interesting paperback I could lay hands on quickly. It was the Rubiyat. I read it on the bus ride home and was immediately hooked.

The Rubiyat is the perfect book for a questioning young man just beginning to find his own voice and his own mind. Khyyam questions authority; in fact, he questions the ultimate authority, God himself. It is not a book for atheists though, unless they are simply looking for literary support for their opinions. Khyyam was no atheist. You can’t call God to task as he does, unless you believe in Him.

Oh, Thou who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d – Man’s forgiveness give – and take!
Khyyam/FitzGerald quatrain LXXXI

A book full of rebelliousness will catch a young man’s eye, but it is the beauty and wisdom in every line which makes it remain a treasure in later life.


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