Monday, April 6, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLII, Second Edition

This quatrain focuses on a libation

"A libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god or spirit or in memory of those who have died. It was common in many religions of antiquity and continues to be offered in various cultures today."  (From the Wikipedia entry)

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLII
And not a drop that from our Cups we throw 
On the parcht herbage but may steal below
    To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye
There hidden--far beneath, and long ago.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XXXIX

And not a drop that from our Cups we throw 
For Earth to drink of, but may steal below
    To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye
There hidden--far beneath, and long ago.

The only change from the 2nd to the 5th Edition  occurs in the second line where "On the parcht herbage" becomes "For Earth to drink of."  The change makes the pouring of the wine into an event that is broader in scope, from where there are dry plants to any situation where a libation is made.   This makes more sense in that the Poet/Narrator tells us that there is a someone below nearly everywhere one goes.

The first word, "And,"   links back to the previous quatrain which echoed Genesis:

                               "Of such a clod of saturated Earth
                                 Cast by the Maker into Human mould"

What is the Earth "saturated" with?  Water?  Wine?  Perhaps it refers to the life force or soul with which the Maker infuses this clod to create a human.  

The most intriguing line is the third--To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye.  Both Islamic and Christian religious beliefs include a heaven and a hell.  To suggest that all who have died and are buried below are suffering would be contrary to those beliefs, so I think that the "fire of Anguish" belongs to those in hell.  I do not know where hell's location is thought to be by the followers of Islam, but Christians generally indicate that hell is below and heaven above, perhaps not literally, but symbolically anyway.

This suggests that the libation may ease, even if only temporarily, the suffering of those in hell.  This would seem to go against the religious traditions that accept a hell, which is conceived of as eternal and relentless suffering, and the witnessing of the misery and the pain of the sinners should cause the faithful to rejoice, according to most religious texts I have encountered.  

Is the Poet/Narrator positing a heretical idea here?  Moreover, it appears to me anyway that he seems to be encouraging us to ease the suffering of those condemned to hell for eternity.   Unfortunately, I cannot ask either Omar Khayyam or Edward FitzGerald what they meant here, so I am left with a question, and not the first one that arose while reading The Rubaiyat.


  1. Just a quick note before my N.O. WW2 museum outing later today . . . all great poetry leaves us with more questions than answers . . . yes? no? . . . so readers like me must learn not to fret about the puzzles but embrace them . . . and your postings help me remember that basic lesson of literary criticism . . . that is one of the reasons I always enjoy your postings . . .

  2. RT,

    Thank you for the kind words. And I agree--the puzzles, I think, are there to be embraced for what they are--a sign that the universe may have a meaning but it isn't always visible to us--and it may never be completely understood.