But Where is the Rose of Yesterday?


Quatrain 9

“You say, each day a thousand roses brings
Yes, but where is the Rose of Yesterday?
And the Summer month that first brings forth the Rose
Shall also take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.”

French translation

Vous dites, chaque jour, mille roses apporte
Oui, mais où est-ce que Rose de hier
Et le mois d’été qui provoque la rose
Doit au loin prendre Jamshyd et Kaikobad

German translation

Du sagst, jeden Tag tausend Rosen bringt
Ja, aber wo ist die Rose von gestern
Und der Sommermonat, der zuerst die Rose hervorbringt
Nehmen auch Jamshyd und Kaikobad weg

Spanish translation

Usted dice, cada día miles de rosas trae
Sí, pero ¿dónde está la rosa de ayer?
Y el mes de verano que primero trae la Rose
También tendrá Jamshyd y Kaikobad lejos


Explanation of Quatrain 9

Fitzgerald’s wording is modified slightly in this version.

Fitzgerald references kings Jamshyd (Jamshid) and Kaikobad in the last line.

King Jamshyd was the fourth and greatest king of the first Persian Dynasty. King Kaikobad was the founder of the 13th century Kayanian dynasty. By one account, he was a reclusive holy man, who had to be persuaded to sit on the vacant Aryan throne. By another account, the 18-year-old Kaikobad of Dehli was appointed king by the Turkish emirs. His early reign was marked by cruelty and depravity, and he was murdered and replaced by his son.


Where is yesterday’s rose?

The theme of the quatrain is the impermanence of all things – roses, power, and life itself. Many poets have writen about life’s significance and impermanence including Percy Bysshe Shelley in his well known poem, Ozymandias.

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”



What was that about?


Omar Khayyam speaks:
Myself, when young did eagerly frequent lawyer and saint, and heard argument about the value of this or the worth of that: but evermore came out by the same door as I went in, wondering what in heaven and on earth was that about.


Pendant moi jeunesse, je fréquente anxieusement les avocats et les saints, et entendu des arguments sur la mérite de cette et la valeur de cela: mais toujours, je suis sorti de la même porte que je suis entré, me demandé ce que c’était sur le ciel et sur la terre.


Für mich, als jung war ich eifrig häufiger Anwalt und Heiliger war, und hörte Argumentation über dies und das, aber immer mehr von der gleichen Tür kam als ich ging und fragte, was im Himmel und auf der Erde, hat man gesagt.


Quatrain 8, at Naishapur or Babylon



Sweet or bitter runs the cup

Sweet or bitter runs the cup, as we stop to take a sip. From the lips the wine of life oozes drop by drop, and all about the leaves of life fall one by one, until my friend we’re done.

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup, sweet or bitter runs,
The Wine of Life oozes drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life fall one by one.

French translation

Si à Naishapur ou en Babylone,
Si la coupe douces ou amères court
Le vin de la vie goutte à goutte grimpe
Les feuilles de vie un par un tombent

German translation

Ob bei Naishapur oder Babylon
Ob der Cup süß oder bitter läuft,
Der Wein des Lebens Tropfen für Tropfen sickert,
Die Blätter des Lebens fallen Stück für Stück

Spanish translation

Ya sea en el Naishapur o Babilonia,
Si la copa dulce o amargo está
El vino de la vida gota a gota rezuma
Las hojas de vida uno por uno cayendo

Explanation of Quatrain 8

Babylon is a well known Biblical reference to the Tower of Babylon requiring no explanation. Naishapur is its Persian equivalent, a rich city on the Silk Road to China, repeatedly destroyed by invasion and earthquake. It is uncoincidentally, the birthplace and burial place of Omar Khayyam.

I made a few changes to Fitzgerald wording, changing the verb tense in the line 2 to the singular form, and in the last two lines of the quatrain, not keeping the helping verb “keep”.

In the French, German, and Spanish versions the translation of “whether” can be questioned. The rhyme is mostly lost, replaced with alliteration.


Life as a cup of wine

Our days may be sweet or bitter, they pass one by one, and so too, humankind dies one by one.


approach to Naishapur, from the book, painting by I. R. Herbert

Quatrain 7, Come fill a cup


Come fill your cup, and in the fire of spring

Come fill a Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-cloak of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has little time to sing
To flutter – and once again is on the Wing.

French translation

Viens remplir une coupe, et au feu du printemps
Votre manteau de douleur jeter:
L’oiseau du temps a peu de temps pour chanter
Pour flotter – et encore une fois sur l’aile.

German translation

Kommst! Auffüllen Sie ein weinglas, und im Feuer des Frühlings
Dein Wintermantel der Bedauern wegschmeißen:
Der Vogel der Zeit hat wenig Zeit zum Singen
Zu flattern – und noch einmal fliegt weg

Spanish translation

Ven a llenar una copa, y en el fuego de la primavera
Su Invierno-capa del arrepentimiento tirar a la basura:
Ay, el pájaro del tiempo, pero un poco de tiempo canta
Para volar – y una vez más está en sus alas.

Notes. Ah, a quatrain that is straight forward – Time is fleeting as the sparrow.

A few minor changes to Fitzgerald’s language include: delete the first comma in the first line, substitute “cloak” for “garment” in the second line, in the third line add “sing” to complete the rhyme, and in the fourth line, add “once again” to refer to the cycle of life.

I would have switched to grief or regret for repentance, but give the author a break.

In the French translation, the “winter” coat is implied for sake of brevity. Sadness sounds so much better than repentance.

In the German version, “Kommst!” is a familiar command. Wegschmeißen is a mouthful, but it contains “weg” which repeats as the last word of the quatrain.

What do you think of the Spanish?

Really now, sometimes I feel like the little red hen who found some seeds of wheat on the ground and had an idea. She would find some help and plant them. Not me, said the cat, the dog, and the goose; and the little red hen did it herself, but when it was time to eat the cake made from the wheat, everyone wished to join in.


Quatrain 6, a nightingale sings


Quatrain 6

French translation

Les lèvres de David sont verrouillées, mais en divin
Pehlevi avec sa voix haut perchée, “Vin, vin, vin
Vin rouge, le rossignol chante à la rose
Et sa joue sanglante tourne la rose blanche rouge


And David’s lips are lockt; but in divine
High-piping Pehlevi, with “Wine! Wine! Wine!
Red Wine!”–the Nightingale cries to the Rose
That sallow cheek of hers t’ incarnadine.

German translation

Die Lippen von Davids sind verschlossen, aber auf göttlich
Hochwertiger Pehlevi, “Wein, Wein, Wein
Rotwein, die Nachtigall schreit zur Rose
Und ihre blöde Wange die weiße Rose rot macht

Quatrain 6 explained.

Unrequited love

The nightingale’s cry is high-pitched and plaintive. It speaks to the rose, but the rose will not or can not answer. I do not speak Persian, but wonder if the the sounds resemble the Pehlevi for “wine, wine, wine, red wine”?

The reference to Pehlevi, a Persian language spoken in the Parthian kingdom (250 BC to AD 226), helps us date the legendary tale of the nightingale and the rose.

Nightingale and the rose

The ancient Persian poets tells many tales of the nightingale and the rose. One is that the nightingale’s longing for the rose was so great that it cried all night. The other birds hearing this noise could not sleep and they took their complaint to King Solomon, hoping that he in his wisdom could find a cure for the nightingale’s unrequited love.

Knowing that love is strongest force on earth, King Solomon forgave the nightingale for his disturbances.

Other poets tell the tale that once the rose was only white with pale yellow at the edge of the petals. Loving the rose dearly, the nightingale approached to closely and its breast was pierced by a thorn. The nightingales’ blood poured onto the rose causing it to become red.


Why King David and not King Solomon?

Why does Fitzgerald allude to King David and not King Solomon?
Perhaps because of Psalm 104:15 which says, “wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts.”

Quatrain 5, Iram is gone as its rose

The Hand of God

“See how the Hand of God dealt with the people of Ad and the city of Iram, with its lofty pillars, the like of which did not exist in all the land.” From the Koran, Surah (Chapter and verse) 89.6 – 89.8:


Quatrain 5,

En fait, Iram est parti comme la Rose
Et la coupe Sev’n-ring’ de Jamshyd, où personne ne le sait;
Mais encore le Ruby deviens sur la Vigne,
Et beaucoup d’un jardin par l’eau souffle.


Sicher, Iram ist als den Rose weg
Und Jamshyd des Sev’n-ring’d Tasse Wo niemand weiß;
Aber immer noch die Ruby auf der Weinstock werden,
Und viele ein Garten am Wasser weht.


Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose,
And Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup where no one knows;
But still a Ruby kindles in the Vine,
And many a Garden by the Water blows.

Explanation of the quatrain

I have made slight changes to FitzGerald’s English verse.

Like the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Iram with its “lofty pillars” (Surah 89.7 of the Qur’an) was a wealthy city in the Arabian peninsula adorned with fruit trees and  and flowers, destroyed by God for its wickedness and lost in the desert sands.


King Jamshid, from a tile in the British Museum

The mythical King Jamshyd reigned over a Golden Age in Persia, during which pain and suffering did not exist. He is credited with many wondrous inventions and discoveries including the cultivation of the grape and making of wine. His seven ring cup enabled one to see the seven corners of the glove and divine the future. Like the Cup of the Holy Grail, Jamshyd’s cup is lost, a reminder that all things perish.


The Breath of Jesus

Genesis 2:7, “[As] the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and so man became a living soul.”

As the New Year revives old desires, the soul in solitude retires…

Quatrain IV
As the New Year revives old Desires,
And the Soul in Thought and Solitude retires,
Let the hands of Moses appear like dew upon the bough,
And the breath of Jesus spring forth from the earth.

La nouvelle année relance les vieux désirs,
Comme l’âme à la solitude prend sa retraite,
Le main de Moïse apparais comme la rosée sur la branche,
Et le souffle de Jésus surgit de la terre.

Wie das neue Jahr alte Wünsche belebt ,
Die nachdenkliche Seele zur Einsamkeit zieht sich zurück,
Dann die Hände von Mose wie Tau auf dem Ast erscheinen ,
Und der Atem Jesu aus der Erde entspringt .

Explanation of the Quatrain 4

Spring is a popular subject for poets, and recall to mind the familiar words Tennyson said in Locksley Hall, “in spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”

The Hand of Moses

The allusions to the hand of Moses is not clear, but we can guess. The rod is an extension of the hand and Moses had a brother Aaron, whose rod, like that Moses possessed, had special powers. In Numbers 17:8, God commands each of the Twelve Tribes offer up a rod. God would reveal the tribe chosen to become priests through one of the rods. Aaron offered his rod representing the tribe of Levi, and “it put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds” .



III …comme le Coq chantait


Open the door!

Open the door! the student cajoles. Come! says the master, class is in session.

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted–“Open up the Door!
Know how little while, we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.”

Comme le Coq chantait, ceux devant qui se tenaient
La Taverne a crié – “Alors, ouvrez la Porte!
Savez vous combien peu de temps nous devons rester,
Et, une fois parti, ne peut plus revenir.

Als der Hahn krähte, waren die, wie vor standen
Die Taverne schrie: “Öffne schnell die Tür!”
Wissen, wie wenig, während wir bleiben müssen,
Und einmal abgereist, kann nicht mehr zurückkehren. “

Quatrain 3 explained

“Open the door!” the Sufi students harangue, saying, “Let us partake of life’s mysteries and joys.”

The Sufi is a seeker of Truth, who by means of love and devotion moves towards the Truth, and with knowledge towards perfection and the perception of the divine.

2 Boit du vin

Quatrain II

J’entends une voix qui me dit…quand je bois du vin, je bois de vie.


Dans la tavern, une matin, je entendis
Une voix qui disait, mes doux petites,
N’attends, remplissez votre verre de vin
Et boire encore, avant que la vie soit partie

Am morgens in der Bierhalle
Eine Stimme zu mir sprach
Kinder wach auf, und mit dein Krug gefullt
Getränk des Lebens, bevor es verloren ist
(Eins, zwei und nie zu viel)

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”

At dawn, I heard a voice in the tavern speak
Awake, for the moments pass away
Now, fill your cup with wine and
Drink, to life before its done, l‘Chaim

To all of this I hear Walt Whitman reply,

O Me! O Life!

O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless
—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself,
(for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean
—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all
—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring
—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

Leaves of Grass



Éveillé! Pour le soleil du matin de la nuit la plus noire
A jeté la Pierre qui met les Etoiles en Vol
Tiens! Le chasseur de l’Est a pris
La tourelle du sultan dans un noeud de lumière.

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.

Wach! Für den Morgen in der Napf der Nacht
Hat den Stein geworfen und die Sterne zum Flug gejagt:
Und Lo! Der Jäger des Ostens hat gefangen
Der Turm des Sultans in ein Schall des Lichts.



Magicians Penn and Teller would agree with this that life is one grand illusion.

I am not sure who should get first credit for saying that life is an illusion, a dream. Buddha is often cited as the source, and the closest thing I come to is, “What we think, we become.” That is not a bad thought – to be, think. When I was a child not paying attention, my dad said, “Wake up and get with the program.”

Good advice.

Awake, walk downstairs in your flannel PJs, grind coffee beans from a small company like Coava, let the aroma reaches your nose, pour a cup, add a little cream, hold it in your hands and feel the warmth, then sip slowly while watching the sun rise on the horizon.  Observe the darkness disappear, watch the clouds appear in shades of red and gold.

And, of course, “be happy for the moment, this is your life,” as Omar said.