Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain: XLVII

Edward FitzGerald made several changes in this quatrain as the editions progressed from the First to the Fifth, but the most significant one is the simple removal of one word. This brings about a substantial change in tone-- a change that impinges on theological issues important to several religions.

First Edition: Quatrain XLVII

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in--Yes--
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be--Nothing--Thou shalt not be less.

A rather bleak stanza--the end of everything, including us is nothing. The only consolation, if it can be called that, is that if all we do ends in Nothing, then we won't be any less in the future, when we will be Nothing. Theologians from various religions may wish to dispute the poet-narrator's bleak view of existence and its aftermath.

Perhaps the "if" in the first line of this rather convoluted stanza offers some hope. "If" it all ends in Nothing--it's not a definite statement, but suggests only a possibility that all may end in Nothing. However, the previous stanzas that relegated us to the status of playthings and actors in a drama created by the Master suggest that since our only role is that of entertainment, this would hold little hope of anything beyond that, except perhaps to be taken out of the box for another game. That doesn't strike me as much of an eternal reward, although it may be an improvement over eternal punishment.

Second Edition: Quatrain XLV

And if the Cup you drink, the Lip you press,
End in what All begins and ends in--Yes,
Imagine then you are what heretofore
You were--hereafter you shall not be less.

The poet-narrator no longer refers to "Nothing" in this stanza. Instead, it is left open. Our ultimate end shall be the same as our beginning, unknown. We are what we were and we shall not be less in the future. Taoists would agree here for in the Tao Te Ching, it is written that all come from the tao and ultimately return to the tao. And the tao is unknowable, as is told in the first stanza of Chapter One (traditional order)

The Tao that can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao,
The Names that can be given
Are not the Absolute Names.

Fifth Edition: XLII

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press
End in what All begins and ends in--Yes;
Think then you are To-day what Yesterday
You were--To-morrow you shall not be less.

The most significant changes between the second and fifth editions are the substitution of Yesterday, To-day, and To-morrow for reference to the beginning, the present, and the future. As does the second edition, this version also leaves open just what our status was in the beginning and in the future, and it also suggests that our status is the same for all three--yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

What does "the Wine you drink, the Lip you press" end in? --the same that everything begins and ends in . . .

Why the change from "Nothing" to ambiguity? Perhaps comments from religious leaders?

The quotation comes from The Wisdom of Laotse, translated by Lin Yutang.

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