Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXXVII

This is a very unusual quatrain, as well as being the last in a series of four linked quatrains featuring a drinking vessel.

First Edition: Quatrain XXXVII

Ah, fill the Cup:--what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn To-morrow and dead Yesterday
Why fret about them if To-day be sweet!

What is unusual about this quatrain is that it disappears after the first edition. I can find no quatrain in the later editions that appear to be this one, even greatly modified. At best I was able to locate in the second edition and fifth edition a quatrain that had one line that was the same: "Unborn To-morrow and dead Yesterday". However, the quatrains, Quatrain 59 in the second edition and 57 in the fifth edition, did not suggest the theme of time passing quickly.
There have been other quatrains that have been modified, but this, so far, is the first that FitzGerald drops completely, except for that one line, from all subsequent versions.

This quatrain repeats a theme that has occurred already in previous quatrains--time is passing quickly. I had to check the dictionary for the verb "boots" to get an exact sense of the line. One archaic meaning of "boots" has to do with giving an advantage or aid. So, the line seems to mean something like "What help is it" to repeat that "Time is slipping underneath our feet." We can't stop or prevent it from doing so. It also suggests that we shouldn't concern ourselves with either the dead past or unborn future if today is sweet or pleasant, and filling the cup seems to be one way of making today sweet.

We should live in the present and forget about the past and the future. It reminds me of Longfellow's "Psalm of Life," especially if one wrenches the following stanza from the rest of the poem.

"Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, - act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!"

Longfellow, however, is urging us to work and strive rather than to simply enjoy ourselves as you can plainly see from the last stanza of his poem.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

What I find interesting though is that both poets, regardless of their widely differing goals, urge us to live in the present and not concern ourselves with either the past or the future.

Why did FitzGerald drop this stanza? I have read nothing about his thinking as he made the four revisions, so I can only guess. Perhaps he felt that he had already made this point in previous quatrains and felt it was becoming repetitive. As he writes in the quatrain--what good is it to repeat how time passes quickly.

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