Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LI

This is another of the quatrains that first appeared in the Second Edition of the Rubaiyat published by Edward FitzGerald.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LI

A Hair, they say, divides the False and the True;
Yes;  and a single Alif were the clue--
     Could you but find it, to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to the The Master too;

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain L
A Hair perhaps divides the False and the True;
Yes;  and a single Alif were the clue--
     Could you but find it--to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to the The Master too;

The two versions are quite close with only two changes made from the Second to the Fifth editions.  The first occurs in the first line where FitzGerald changes the ubiquitous and vague "they say" with perhaps, which suggests some doubt in the Poet/Narrator's mind about the claim.  The second change was made to make it more clear that the phrase "Could you but find it" is an interjection by changing the comma after "it" to a dash to balance it off with the first dash just before "Could."  The dash makes for a stronger break or pause after "it" so that the reader understands the flow of the sentence to be--

"Yes;  and a single Alif were the clue/ to the Treasure-house,/ And peradventure to the The Master too;"

This quatrain is actually the second in a series of four linked quatrains which begins with Quatrain L and ends with Quatrain LIII in the Second Edition.  The link with Quatrain L is provided by the following line from L: "A Hair, they say, divides the False and the True"  which becomes the first line in Quatrain LI.

That hair dividing the true and false is now compared to a single letter (Alif--first letter of the alphabet--A)  that could be a clue to a treasure house and to the Master.  The nature of the treasure house and the identity of the  Master is not revealed in this quatrain and the reader must wait for the next for a possible answer.  This is suggested clearly as Quatrain LI does not end with a period but with a semi-colon, which indicates a link to the next quatrain.  

The two quatrains focus on the small which can be extremely important, in spite of their unimpressive size: true and false are so close that only a hair separates them, while only a single letter might provide a clue to the location of a treasure and the identity of the Master.  It points out how easily we can mistake the false for the true or go off in the wrong direction in our search because we misread the clue.  Quatrain L also pointed out that our life spans are brief and wondered if we should spend our time in activities that so easily could lead us nowhere.

We must wait for Quatrains LII and LIII to see if the Poet/Narrator can provide us with enlightenment here. 


  1. But do true-and-false exist? Perhaps? Ask Plato. Isn't there always an actual line of division? Lines, of course, have limited dimensions. Ask geometry experts. And who draws the line? Who places the hair? Ask the ethicists. The lawmakers or the lawgivers. Differences among the two? So many questions and so few answers. Fragments runamuck! Perhaps the Master has the answers. I guess I am conflating and muddling too many odds and ends. Hmmmm.

    1. R. T.,

      But do true-and-false exist?"

      Yes, of course, and everybody agrees. They may not agree on "what" or "which" is true or false, but all do agree that true and false exist. .

  2. Please note that I have had to move and rename the blog: