Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XLIX

This quatrain refers back to earlier ones that say that we are not masters of our destiny but only characters in a play or pawns in a game controlled by . . .?

First Edition: Quatrain XLIX

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXIV

Impotent Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days,
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXIX

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days,
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

The most significant differences that I can see among the three editions occurs in the first two lines of the quatrains. In the first edition, the poet begins with a reference to the game--"'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days"--and then brings us in as the "Pieces" moved about at the whim of the player, whereas the second and fifth editions refer immediately to "impotent Pieces" or "helpless Pieces" in the first line. The focus has shifted from the Game to our role as either "impotent" or "helpless" pieces.

In the first edition, humans are pawns of Destiny, a theme found in most cultures around the globe. Even Oedipus, perhaps the one who, in Western literature, has been the most ill-favored of all by Destiny, still has an aura of a tragic nobility or grandeur about him. However, even that disappears in the second edition when humans are portrayed as "impotent" which suggests at least an attempt to do something which turns out to be a failure, and even worse, in the fifth edition, when humans are portrayed as helpless, or unable to even attempt to act.

The other change is the replacement of He for Destiny. It is no longer a god--Destiny or Fate-- or a blind force that controls us but "He." In an earlier post, I brought up two poems, one by Robert Frost and one by Thomas Hardy, that spoke to this difference, as to whether it was blind chance or a deliberate act by a "person," divine or demonic.

The last two lines in the three versions are identical, except for the substitution of "checks" in the second and fifth edition for "mates" which is found in the first edition. While the game is played on a "Chequer-board," which suggests a game of checkers, the terms "mates" and "checks" actually belong to chess. Perhaps FitzGerald used "Chequer-board" instead of the more accurate chess board, because he needed the extra syllable.

"Mates" connotes the end of the game when the king is mated or taken or slain, which could be seen as redundant since he also refers to "slays" in the same line. On the other hand, to "check" means to put the king in danger of being taken, and the player whose king is checked has to do something in the next move to prevent the king from being taken. In either case, though, the king can do nothing on his own, for it is up to the player to defend the king or resign and place the king "back in the Closet."

My preference: As usual, I prefer the First Edition.

It seems a very bleak view of humanity's role--certainly far from those who argue that the universe was created solely as a testing ground for us, which makes us the center of and sole purpose for the universe. Isn't there a warning in the Bible about this sort of attitude--something about pride going before a fall?

This quatrain reminds me of "Invictus," a poem written by W. E. Henley. Henley is also a 19th century writer. His dates are 1849--1903, while FitzGerald lived from 1809 to 1883. I wonder if they had read each other's work.


OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
Howe charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

-- William Ernest Henley --

It, if anything, is even bleaker than FitzGerald's view of us as helpless pieces. In both our fates are seen as dictated by outside forces. Henley though seems to see life, as well as the afterlife, as horrific--"Beyond this place of wrath and tears/Looms but the horror of the shade." What was it about England in the 19th century that brought about this view in, at least, some of the English poets?

Are there any poets today who could or would write:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


  1. I have enjoyed your commentary. Thank you.

    1. Anonymous,

      Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for your kind words.