Monday, December 7, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XIX

From the roses and hyacinths of the last quatrain, we move to another and more prosaic plant, or so it would seem, in Quatrain XIX--grass.

First Edition: Quatrain XIX

And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Second Edition: Quatrain XXV

And this delightful Herb whose living Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XX

And this reviving Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River-Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

The changes, though minimal in number, all occur in the first two lines of the quatrain.

"Delightful" in the first two editions now becomes "reviving" in the final edition. The change from "delightful" to "reviving" makes grass more important in that it no longer is merely "delightful," or something pleasant to the senses, but it now has a healing role: grass is a "reviving" herb, an herb that could restore energy or even bring something back to life.

The second modification is the substitution of "living" for "tender" as a modifier of "Green" in the second edition. However, FitzGerald reverts back to "tender" by the fifth edition. "Living," to me, suggests a colder, more factual perspective whereas "tender" conveys a more positive and sensual response to this "Herb."

The third and last change is that from "River's Lip" in the first two editions to "River-Lip" by the last edition. The difference is very subtle, so subtle that I can sense something but am unable to spell it out precisely. One difference that I do note is that "River-Lip" is shorter and more abrupt than "River's Lip." Perhaps you may be able to comment on the subtle nuances of "River's Lip" and "River-Lip."

According to my dictionary, "fledges" means "to cover with or as if with feathers." This definition supports "tender" far more than "living," I should think.

The quatrain flows from the previous one which suggested flowers above the bodies of those who went before us. The first two lines bring in the idea, if I'm not mistaken, of the Islamic concept of Heaven, which is frequently portrayed as a Garden laid out along a flowing river with abundant grass and flowers, a Great Oasis in fact. The last two lines carry on the theme of a covering for those who are buried beneath.

After the flowers of the last quatrain, I was surprised to find something as common or prosaic as grass. However, after thinking about it, I realized that this wasn't the only reference to grass as a burial shroud.

Grass appears in an haiku by Basho with exactly the same connotation:

Here, where a thousand
Captains swore grand conquest...tall
Grass their monument.

This also suggests the glory and dreams of past heroes, much as did earlier quatrains (see VI, VIII, IX, and XIV example). And what remains? In the haiku, grass is the only monument to their grand ambitions.

Carl Sandburg gives us the same imagery, perhaps more brutally expressed than the others--grass that covers all.


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg.
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor;
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Perhaps to end this post a bit more gently, I will quote a short stanza from Walt Whitman's most aptly named work--Leaves of Grass. It is from "Song of Myself," Stanza 6, which begins:

"A child said What is the Grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he.

. . .

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breast of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers' laps.
And here you are the mothers' laps.

. . .

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end
to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses"

I guess I've wandered a bit from where I began, but I think that is an attribute of great poetry or great fiction or great prose--to begin at one point and end somewhere else, someplace unexpected, if one is lucky.

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