Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXXVIII

Perhaps the bleakest quatrain of all--at least the bleakest one so far.

First Edition: Quatrain XXXVIII

One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste--
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing--Oh, make haste!

Second Edition: Quatrain XLIX

One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste--
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Draws to the Dawn of Nothing--Oh, make haste!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XLVIII

A Moment's Halt--a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste--
And Lo!--the phantom Caravan has reach'd
The Nothing it set out from--Oh, make haste!

This quatrain is somewhat unusual. So far, most quatrains have shown the most alterations between the first and second editions, while the third generally has been similar to the second. Here, the first and second editions have only a minor difference--the first word of the last line changes from "Starts" in the first edition to "Draws" in the second, while the fifth is quite different in wording and seems to be more comprehensible in some respects, or so it seems to me.

I think it's clear that the Poet says that life is a brief interlude, "A Moment's Halt," a night's stopover at a caravansary at an oasis. And when the short night is over, the caravan moves on again into the "the Dawn of Nothing" or the "Annihilation" from which it emerged. This is the reverse of the usual metaphor in which life is portrayed as merely a brief day between two everlasting nights. The controlling image here is the desert in which a well is the significant symbol for life amidst the desert waste, and it is typical for a caravan to stop overnight at one whenever possible. I think the changes in the fifth edition make this much clearer than it is in the first two editions.

If I remember correctly, there is a Norse tale that also employs the reversed metaphor of Life/Night and Death/Day. It is a winter night with a storm raging outside, but inside the great hall of the king, one finds light and warmth and drink and food and comradeship and boasts of great victories and laments of sad defeats. Then a bird enters at one end, flies the length of the great hall, and escapes into the night at the other end. A wise man says, "That is life, a brief moment of light and joy and then nothing once again."

One other change is that the Caravan becomes a "phantom Caravan" in the fifth edition. Are they ghosts traveling on eternally amidst the waste?

What is not clear to me is the sense of the last three words of all three versions: "Oh, make haste!" It almost seems as though the Poet is urging the caravan to make haste to begin the journey into Nothing once again. Is life so burdensome that one should be glad to be rid of it?

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