This is the first of several posts which I plan to write over the next few months on my personal favourite poems and poets and I hope you will join in with your own selections.
As writers, I think we can consider ourselves word-smiths or word-wrights, hammering and tweaking words to convey our intentions but surely poets have to be even more skilled. Poetry, whether traditional or modern, is usually more tightly written than prose, painting its pictures with fewer words.Poets must pay closer attention to the music of the words, the lines, the stanzas because that’s what poetry is – a song. I hope to write more about the poetry and songs that have comforted and supported me over the years in future posts.
At last count, I had about twenty three poetry books sitting on my shelf – that doesn’t include several larger, illustrated versions, coffee-table items I suppose you could call them. No – these are just the workaday ‘complete works’ that accrete, barnacle-like around us when we study English Literature. Some I rarely dip into these days; maybe use them as reference books to ensure a quote is correct but some are dear friends.
One of my best friends is Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. It has been a loved companion since I was a child. This slim volume bound in blue leather has accompanied me on many journeys, across many oceans and several continents. When I travelled a great deal more than I do now, it was always packed in the suitcase.
Fitzgerald made several translations of Omar’s verses. I prefer the first edition (1859) for the sheer glory of the words. Mine is quite a scholarly edition; it contains three of Fitzgerald’s translations and comparison notes of all five, a short biography of Fitzgerald and another of Omar:
“It is written in the chronicles of the ancients that this King of the Wise, Omar Khayyám, died at Naishápúr in the year of the Hegira, 517 (A.D. 1123); in science he was unrivalled – the very paragon of his age.”
Who wouldn’t want to read the words of a paragon?
At first I just loved the words, the sounds, the pictures, only later in life did I understand that I also loved the tone of the messages: world-weary, sardonic, realistic and in some parts fierce: “What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”
Is all this only in Fitzgerald’s translation or is it in the original Persian? I can’t tell. I just know that the quatrains spoke to me from an early age and continue to do so. Who can fail to be stirred by the opening? No gentle transition this but a bold wake-up call to impel you on the journey.
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 Sultán’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
Can you go back to sleep after that? Say, no, Shout it aloud and hear the vowels echoing the words, the crispness of the ‘t’s, the energy in the verbs. The Stone isn’t thrown or tossed but flung with strength and intent.
But the poem isn’t only words; it holds wisdom, truth, compassion. Perhaps it is the compass of all those things that have made it my friend for so many years. Kháyyám suggests that the only way to cope with life is “.. .a Loaf of Bread …, a Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou …”. Well? Who am I to argue with him?
The Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyám and other writings by Edward Fitzgerald, ed. George Maine, Collins 1953