Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XII

First Edition: Quatrain XII

"How Sweet is mortal Sovranty!"--think some;
Others--"How blest the Paradise to come!"
Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest;
Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum!

Second Edition: Quatrain XIII

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the promise go,
Nor heed the music of a distant drum!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XIII

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!

The changes are mostly aesthetic and involve no major differences in the theme of this Quatrain, which is, briefly stated, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Take what pleasures one can today and don't put them off for dreams of future wealth or glory or paradise.

The reference to the "distant drum" has brought about a variety of interpretations, based mostly on a misunderstanding of what that distant drum signifies. It does not, at least in the explanations that I've seen, mean anything like following one's own dreams or even that different path that Frost refers to. From what I've read, the distant drum signifies that the palace gates are open and that all workers are now expected to come to work. What the narrator therefore tells us is that we should be content with what we have and not strive for future glory or wealth, either in this world or the next. Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tze all urged us to forgo worrying about the future and the future life and concern ourselves with today.

This quatrain follows the previous one in which Old Khayyam urges us to be content with the simple pleasures of life--bread and wine for the body, poetry for the mind, and human companionship to share these pleasures. That would be Paradise today.

The changes seem to be consistent in the direction of moving away from poetic diction to a more prosaic wording. In the first version, FitzGerald seemingly quotes what many people strive for--"mortal Sovranty" and "the Paradise to come." In the later editions, he drops the presumed quotes for a simple statement of what he thinks others desire.

The "mortal Sovranty" of the first version now has become simply "Glories of This World" in the later editions. Perhaps FitzGerald felt it was better to trade in the poetic diction for more commonplace terms that would be more easily understood.

The second change in the first two lines may be a bit more complex. In the first edition, FitzGerald pairs "mortal Sovranty" with "the Paradise to come." In following editions, this is no longer just "the Paradise to come," but "the Prophet's Paradise to come." Did he add "the Prophet" to make it clear that he was referring to Mohamed's vision or did he simply need two more syllables for the sound of the line?

The third line expresses Khayyam's suggestion that we take the bird in hand and not worry about that other one in the bush. We should "take the cash in hand" and "waive the rest" "or let the promise go" or "let the credit go." Enjoy what we have here and now and forget future promises. This isn't easy for many people to do or understand. I think it was Proust who suggested that "There is a sort of a compulsion in us to value what we lack at the expense of what we have."

The last line of the first edition--Oh, the brave Music of a distant drum--is ambiguous. It is not clear just how the reader is to think about that brave music. Is it included in "the Rest" which should be waived? Is it a temptation--the siren call of that distant drum. Is it something that might lead us or even should lead us to forget about the cash in hand? In the latter editions, FitzGerald make it obvious that we aren't supposed to heed the call of that drum. It is to be ignored just as the Glories of the World or the glories of the Paradise to come.

I mentioned in earlier posts that there are those who insist that this is a religious poem in which wine and other items are really religious in nature. The poem shouldn't be taken literally but must be interpreted in order to tease out the true religious substratum. I expressed my doubts about this in the past, and I think this Quatrain poses some real problems for such an interpretation. This Quatrain seems to be so rooted in living in the present that I don't see how one can see this as advocating a commitment today to some sort of a future life in Paradise.

Any thoughts?


  1. I agree. From what I've read of it on this blog, it seems like a secular type of poetry, rather than religious.

  2. Cheryl,

    In later quatrains, we will read some that do bring up religious issues. However, the issues that are brought up make me to wonder how much of this is Khayyam and how much is FitzGerald.