When I was about thirteen I pulled a tall book with a faded blue-cloth spine, out of my mother’s bookcase and opened it into another world. It was titled The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
The text was originally written in Persian by the poet and philosopher, Omar Khayyam in about 1100 A.D. Omar’s thoughts had been beautifully translated by an Englishman, Edward Fitzgerald in the mid 1800s and my mother’s edition was illustrated by Willy Pogany, who was born in 1882 and worked in London, Paris and America. It was these illustrations that first captivated my attention. In 1952 we had no television and I never before seen such scenes of Mosques, inns, camps in the desert, camels and middle-eastern market places. I looked through the pictures and then read the verses which were printed in a typeface emulating Arabic script.
I was now captivated by the rhythms of the verse. Each line has 10 beats and the first, second and fourth line all rhyme. It was (and is) a wonderful ‘bouncing’ rhythm that I had never experienced before. One of the best known stanzas is:
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.
What a wonderful, concise and poetic way of saying, ‘What you have done – is done and can’t be changed, however much you wish you could’.
The very first stanza in the book read:
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.
This was probably the first time I had come across poetic allegory. The picture opposite the text helped me realise that the Bowl of Night was the darkness and the cast Stone was the coming of the light of dawn. The Hunter of the East was the sun and the Noose of Light was the first ray lighting up the Sultan’s Turret whilst the rest of the building was still in darkness.
Since then, especially when I was in Africa, and was awake at or before dawn, this superb picture would come into my mind and I would mentally recite the verse.
When I first discovered the book I was just beginning to challenge my religious indoctrination and seek for a Truth that no one seemed to have really found. I was therefore intrigued to read the stanza:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about ; but evermore
Came out by that same Door as in I went.
I worked out that the Doctor and Saint were the thinkers and the holy men of his period and was somewhat pleased that they too did not seem to be able to put forward a convincing definition of the Truth of an after-life to the seeker, Omar.
I had to read the Rubaiyat many times before I understood that he eventually gave up and sought the answer in drink.
He expressed this thus:
You know, my Friends, how long since in my House
For a new marriage I did make Carouse :
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.
I did not find his solution at all acceptable and have spent much of my life still seeking that truth.
An earlier stanza of Omar’s starts:
There was a Door to which I had no Key
There was a Veil through which I might not see…
Looking back I can identify with these last two lines exactly. In 2012 I published a book titled The Ferry Boat which tells of my search and the conclusions I reached – very different to his. It has been an interesting and fulfilling search and I would like to record my deep appreciation of the help I had from his thoughts as recorded in that fascinating book. There are so many memorable and quotable stanzas that I have been tempted to include many more and found it hard to resist.