21 – Past, present and future

Beloved, fill the wine cup that erases
The fears of the past, future, and present
Tomorrow, why tomorrow I may be
Buried and lost in History’s Sev’n Thousand Years


Forgive me for taking more liberties than usual with this quatrain, a sacrifice of rhyme for meaning. Here are Fitzgerald’s original lines:

Ah, my Belov’ed fill the Cup that clears
To-day Past Regrets and Future Fears:
To-morrow!–Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years


Bien-aimée, remplissez la coupe de vin qui efface
Les peurs du passé, du futur et du présent
Demain, pourquoi demain, je serai peut-être
Enterrée dans le Sept Mille Ans de l’Histoire


Geliebte, füllen Sie den Weinbecher, der löscht
Die Ängste von Vergangenheit, Zukunft und Gegenwart
Morgen, ich morgen bin
Begrub mich in den siebentausend Jahren der Geschichte

Thoughts on Omar and Nishapur

With 21 quatrains translated, it is time to pause, to try to understand the philosopher who wrote these lines and the city from which he came.

The most obvious statement about the life of Omar Khayyam is to begin with this: Omar Khayyám was born in the middle of the 11th Century, at Nishápúr, Khorassán, and died in that town about the year 1123. That might suffice to say for Omar for he was a humble philosopher who was content to study and write.

Of the place of his birth and death, Nishapur, it lies in northeastern Iran, along the Old Silk Route, lying in a fertile plain at the foot of the Binalud Mountains. It was then at the height of its glory, a center for study and commercial traffic.

The following story alludes to Omar’s fleeting view of life.

In 1221, the city was destroyed by the invading Mongols after the husband of Genghis Khan’s daughter was killed there, his daughter then requesting the death of everyone in the city in vengeance. In 10 days, Tolui Genghis Khan’s youngest son undertook the task and his soldiers killed and beheaded the entire population, some have estimated was as high as 1,700,000, the skulls then piled in towering pyramids.

The old city was buried and lost for a thousand years under the weight of sand. The old city was rediscovered in the 20th century.


20 – Reviving Herb whose tender Green

This reviving Herb whose slender Green

Feathers the River-Lip on which we lean-
Ah, lean upon it lightly, for who knows
From whose lovely lips it springs unseen



Herbs are symbols of love, comfort, health, inspiration, luck, and well-wishing.

Whose has not heard the old English ballad, Scarborough Fair in which two separated lovers promise to again be true if each will complete an impossible task or two. The herbs of the ballad are parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, which, in addition to sweetening the breath, are symbols of  health, wisdom, love, and immortality. In Khayyam’s quatrain, unnamed herbs line the river bank, a place where lovers traditionally meet. These same herbs grow from the remains of long lost lovers who once made sweet promises with their lips.


Le Herb renaissant dont le vert mince
Plumes la rivière-lèvre sur laquelle appuyons nous nous
Ah, penchez-vous à la légère, car qui sait
De ses jolies lèvres, il separe inaperçu


Dieses belebende Kraut, dessen schlankes Grün
Federn die River-Lip, auf denen wir lehnen-
Ach, stütze dich leicht darauf, denn wer weiß
Von wessen schönen Lippen springt es ungesehen hervor


And this reviving Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River-Lip on which we lean–
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Notes on Changes

I updated the old English verb “fledges” to something more understandable. Slender works as well as tender and sounds softer. I deleted once, making the past reference more opaque. The German seems a little harsh, don’t you think. Kraut too much like cabbage, but “Gewürz” no better choice.


19 – Never grows so red


Sometimes I think never grows so red
The Rose where buried Caesar bled
And every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in her Lap from a once pretty head


French translation

Parfois, je pense ne grandit pas si rouge
La Rose où César enterré sa sève perdu
Et chaque Jacinthe que le Jardin porte
Dropt dans son genoux d’une jolie tête

German translation

Manchmal denke ich, wird nichts so rot
Die Rose, wo Caesar begraben wurde, blutete
Und jede Hyazinthe, die der Garten trägt
Drop in ihrem Schoß von einem einst hübschen Kopf

Fitzgerald’s original stanza

I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in her Lap from some once lovely Head

18 – The Lion and the Lizard

omar khyyam rubyiat stanzas 17 and 18

The Lion and Lizard do keep
In Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, great hunter – the Wild Ass
Stamps above his Head, but cannot break his Sleep


Original (Edward FitzGerald‘s translation, 1859

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, but cannot break his Sleep

French translation

Le lion et le lézard gardent
Dans les cours où Jamshyd a glorifié et a bu profond:
Et Bahram, grand chasseur – l’âne sauvage
Timbres au-dessus sa tête, mais ne peut pas déranger son sommeil

German translation

Der Löwe und die Eidechse behalten
In Palästen, wo Jamshyd glorifizierte und tief trank:
Und Bahram, großer Jäger – der Wilde Esel
Stempelt seine Füße über seinen Kopf, aber seinen Schlaf nicht brechen kann



Jamshyd, legendary king (shah) of the earliest dynasty ruling ancient Persia, residing in his court at Persepolis, is said to have inspired the arts of civilization.  Because of his arrogance he was deposed.

Bahram Gur is another legendary figure and lived much later, the fifteenth shah of the Sasanian Empire, ruling from 420 to 438, whose nickname “Gur” means “wild ass”. Legend says that Bahram gained the throne after withstanding a trial involving two lions. Bahram suggested to the nobles that the royal crown and attire be placed between two lions. The one who retrieved them by killing the lions then recognized as the shah. Bahram was victorius. Fitzgerald in a footnote to these lines says that Bahram sank in a swamp and died while pursuing his gur (wild ass).

Lion and lizard symbolize the opposing qualities of strength and deception, or courage and trickery.

Jamshyd, long gone, slumbers on and cannot be brought back to life.

omar khyyam rubyiat stanzas 17 and 18
Two lions

17 – Think

empty desert

Think, in this battered Caravanserai
Whose Portals alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan in his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

Pense, dans ce Caravansérail battu
Dont les portails alternent nuit et jour,
Comment Sultan après Sultan dans sa Pompe
Attend l’heure de destinée et a son chemin continué.

desert evening

Denken Sie nur, in dieser geschlagenen Karawanserei
Wessen Portale zwischen Nacht und Tag abwechselnd,
Wie Sultan nach Sultan in seinem Pomp
Wartet seine bestimmte Stunde und ging seinen Weg.

Je suis, je pense, je pense donc je suis, on croit, mais on ne comprends pas.

Worldly hope – 16

‘Tis Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
That turns Ash – or prosper, and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert Sand
Lighting an hour or two – is gone


French translation

L’espoir de Monde que nous mettons nos cœurs sur
Tourne Cendre – ou prospère, et alors,
Comme la neige sur le Sable du Desert
Puis passé dans une heure ou deux

German translation

Weltschätze Männer hoffen auf ihre Herzen
Dies wird zu Asche – oder gedeihen, und dann,
Wie Schnee auf der Wüstensand
eine Stunde oder zwei – und dann nicht mehr

This quatrain reminds me of Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 1:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

Some for earthly glories come – 13


Some for earthly glories come

For the earthly Glories, some,
Sigh for the Paradise to come;
Ah, grab the Cash, let the Credit go,
Heed not the rumble of the distant Drum!

Certaines, pour les gloires mondaines,
Suspirant pour que le Paradis vienne;
Ah, prenez le cash, laissez le crédit aller,
N’entendez pas le grondement du tambour éloigné!

Einige, für die weltlichen Ruhm,
Seufzen für das Paradies zu kommen;
Ah, packen Sie den Geld, lassen Sie den Kredit gehen,
Hörte nicht das Rumpeln der fernen Trommel!

Quatrain 13

Dear reader, we have come to the 13th quatrain of Fitzgerald’s, The Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam, (1120 A.C.E.) and I sit here wondering if Omar thought this particular verse unlucky because of its number.

The 13th day of the New Year

Clerics in today’s Iran have tried hard to stamp out the superstitious belief that 13 is an unlucky number.

In particular, Iranians believe that it is unlucky to stay inside your house on the 13th day of the Persian New Year. The belief is a mark of the Zoroasteran past that dates to 1000 BCE and possibly before. Today across the country, Iranian families spread rugs and set up tents in parks to mark the holiday and tie or weave blades of grass together as a sign of good luck.

Fitzgerald’s original quatrain goes like this:

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!



A jug of wine, a loaf of bread


A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Un Livre de Versets dans le bois,
Un vase de vin, du pain – et toi
A côté de moi, chantant dans la forêt sauvage…
Oh, la forêt était un Paradis suffi!

Ein Buch der Verse unter den Bäumen
ein wenig Wein, einige Brot – und du
Neben mir in dem wilden Wald singen …
Oh, der Wald war ein Paradies genug!

Omar the tent maker

Call him Omar the tent maker, or the tent maker’s son, for that is the translation of Khayyam.

Despite this humble origin, Omar was quite serious about astronomical observations and mathematical questions. And yet, Omar well understood the insoluble complexity of the universe and balanced his mathematical obsession with verse, wine, bread, and women.

La vie n’est jamais facile, mes amis, mais du vin et les versets le font plus.

In 1073, Malik-Shah, ruler of the Seljuq dynasty and his vizier Nizam al-Mulk, invited Omar Khayyam to Esfahan, the capital, to set up an astronomical observatory. For 18 years Khayyam worked in relative peace. In 1092, Malik-Shah died and his vizier was murdered. Khayyam came under attack from the orthodox Muslims who felt that his curiosity did not conform to the faith. Nevertheless, he remained at court and tried to curry favor with Sanjar, Malik-Shah’s third son, who became the ruler of the empire in 1118.

Death entered Omar’s tent in Nishapur on 4 December 1131.

Along the strip of herbage strewn


With me along the strip of Herbage strewn
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot–
And Peace to Mahmud on his golden Throne!

French translation of Quatrain 11

Venez avec moi dans l’espace du vert parsemé
Qui divise la terre inconnue de cet homme a semé,
Où le nom de l’esclave et du sultan ne compte pas …
Alayhi as-salām, dit Mahmud sur son trône!

What have we to do?

Oh, Let them take them! What have we to do
With Kaikobad the Great or Kaikhosru?
While Zal and Rustum bluster, as they will,
Call Hatim to Supper – and heed not you

French translation

Ô, laissez-les les prendre! Que faut-il faire
Avec Kaikobad the Grande ou Kaikhosru?
Tandis que Zal et Rostam tempêtent, comme ils le feront,
Appelez Hatim à la dîner – n’ignore pas vous

German translation

Oh, lass sie sie nehmen! Was haben wir zu tun
Mit Kaikobad der Große oder Kaikhosru?
Während Zal und Rustum tosen, wie sie wollen,
Rufen Sie Hatim zum Abendmahl an – beachten Sie nicht Sie

Spanish translation

Oh, ¡Que se los lleven! ¿Qué tenemos que hacer?
¿Con Kaikobad el Grande o Kaikhosru?
Mientras que Zal y Rustum fanfarronean, como ellos,
Llama a Hatim a la cena – no te hagas caso

Notes on translation and explanation of Quatrain 10.

A few minor changes to Fitzgerald’s wording and the spelling of Rostam.

The gods of war cares not for human life and life is short. Oh, what have we to do?

Kaikobad the Great and his grandson (possibly great grandson) Kaikhosru were mighty kings who battled enemies far and wide. They are named in the epic poem Shahnameh, “The Book of Kings”, written by Persian poet Hakim Abol Qasem Ferdowsi Tousi and completed in the year 1010. Redowsi also names Zal and his son Rostam, legendary figures in Persian mythology. Rostam is the mightiest of Persian paladins, famous for courage and fighting.

One story from the Shahmanan, is that at the age of two, Rostam while in his bed heard a mighty elephant let loose and storming about the palace. While others stood by in fear of the raging beast, Rostam beat the elephant with his fists, killing him, and then went back to bed.

Generous Hatim of the Tribe of Tai, represents hospitality. The last line “heed not” is a kind of “worry not” or “que sera, sera”.

While the poet asks, what can be done and has no answer, others (the attribution is unclear) say, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” – Hamlet’s dilemma?

Paladin Rostam