Monday, 8 February 2010

Omar Khayyam on wine

'Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup Before Life's Liquor in it's Cup be dry', urged 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam in one of the many quatrains that make up the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, a set of English translations of the four-line verses by Edward FitzGerald.

The line reminds me of the opening verse of Robert Herrick's 1648 poem To the Virgins, to make much of Time, made famous by the film Dead Poet's Society:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying

The message is the same: seize the day and make the most of the moment you're living in, because our time on earth is short and life's pleasures are fleeting. Khayyam describes it thus:

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Last Sunday I made a pilgrimage to the British Library to check out their exhibition on the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, having been inspired to do so by an article in our March issue by philosopher Roger Scruton. In it he remembers the 'laughing and tolerant phase' of Islam Khayyam lived through, made 'laughing and tolerant' he believes, under the influence of the grape.

'It is one of the tragedies of our time that those great winos, Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, should have ceased to be the leading authorities on how the Holy Book is interpreted', Scruton mourns. The article ends with a controversial plea: 'Muslims must learn again to drink, and should be piously applying themselves to the task'.

A distant dream perhaps, but there is no denying the importance of wine to Omar Khayyam. His verses are soaked with references to wine and its joyful effects on the soul. In fact, walking round the exhibition, illustrated with beautiful drawings and a jewel-encrusted binding of the poems, it was hard to find a verse that didn't mention wine:

When once you hear the roses are in bloom,
The is the time, my love, to pour the wine;
Houris and palaces and Heaven and Hell-
These are but fairy-tales, forget them all.

And lately by the Tavern Door agape,
Come stealing through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and 'twas–the Grape!

Khayyam also wrote a poem In Praise of Wine, extolling wine's virtue as a bringer of truth and wisdom able to rid the drinker of their ego:

See! I clasp the cup whose power
Yields more wisdom in an hour
Than whole years of study give,
Vainly seeking how to live.
Wine dispenses into air,
Selfish thoughts, and selfish care.

The exhibition was a fascinating insight into the mind of the poet, who saw wine as a means of getting closer to truth, and the truest self. I agree with Scruton about it being a tragedy that liberals like Khayyam and Rumi are no longer viewed as authorities on how to interpret the Holy Book, and that the 'laughing and tolerant' phase of Islam is sadly a thing of the past. For, as it rightly says in Ecclesiastes 31:35-36: 'Wine drunk with moderation is the joy of soul and the heart'.

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