hazy memories

scarlet tulips

According to Google, today is the 971st anniversary of the birth of Omar Khayyam, Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet. It seems slightly strange to me that we would know the exact date of birth of someone born nearly 1000 years ago, and I wonder how eastern and western calendar differences and the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar affect things.

But even if there were good reason to doubt the accuracy of the date, I have no objections to celebrating Khayaam; I may not be able to read the original, but I’ve loved Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat since I first came across it.

And now I’m trying to work out when exactly that would have been.

I’ve just spent far too long searching online to see if I can confirm that the Seventies’ TV series The Magician, starring Bill Bixby, used the quatrain:

For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

I can’t seem to find it referenced anywhere online, which is strange and suggests I may be mis-remembering. But, anyway, the series didn’t launch until 1973 and since I have a copy of Fitzgerald’s work that belonged to one of my parents, with a hand-written dedication dated 1957, I have probably been familiar with the Rubaiyat pretty much all my life.

I have a vague recollection of the phrase “A book of verse – and thou” appearing in the front of other books from my childhood, although I suspect that I am confusing the illustrated endpapers of different books and conflating them with an early memory of the Everyman’s Library motto:

Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side

vermilion tulips

In another confused memory, I expected to find the adjective “tulip-cheeked” in Fitzgerald, but there don’t appear to be any tulips at all in the First Edition, while the only one in subsequent editions is an actual flower:

As then the Tulip for her morning sup
Of Heav’nly Vintage from the soil looks up,
Do you devoutly do the like, till Heav’n
To Earth invert you – like an empty Cup.

Further exploration tells me that I may be mixing up Fitzgerald with the more literal version of the Persian originals published in 1979 by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs.

If chance supplied a loaf of white bread,
Two casks of wine and a leg of mutton,
In the corner of a garden with a tulip-cheeked girl,
There’d be enjoyment no Sultan could outdo.

Comparing that with Fitzgerald’s quatrain offers food – and drink – for thought:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

I have no interest in white bread and I’d be more than happy to skip the leg of mutton; but the two casks of wine seem a more generous measure than a single flask. Even so, I think Fitzgerald wins out, if only because it is so much more familiar.

vermilion tulip

It was, of course, Fitzgerald’s text that inspired this piece:


Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

I had two loaves till you said it was fitting
to swap one for a hyacinth; that’s how,
now the lily’s dead, you’ll find me sitting
here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough.

A single loaf ain’t much, it’s poor indeed,
but I’ll admit that, here and now,
more than a second loaf, I need
a flask of wine, a book of verse – and thou.

Cheese perhaps, and, though I’d do without
the mayo, butter, salt and watercress,
I’d rather like you to be here, flat out
beside me singing in the Wilderness.

In fact I’d ditch this (now stale) loaf of bread
if you’d just bring some wine; I’d show you how
– you, me, some booze – we need no feather bed
and wilderness is Paradise enow.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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