Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain CVI

This is the first of several linked quatrains which express the same theme: the pain of human existence.

Second Edition:  Quatrain CVI

Oh, if the World were but to recreate,
That we might catch ere closed the Book of Fate,
    And make The Writer on a fairer leaf
Inscribe our names, or quite obliterate!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XCVIII

Would but some winged Angel ere too late
Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,
    And make the stern Recorder otherwise
Enregister,  or quite obliterate!

FitzGerald has made considerable changes to this quatrain by the Fifth Edition.   The theme seems to be the same, though.  But, there is a subtle difference which I didn't catch the first time I read them.  The Second Edition was published in 1868, about nine years after the First Edition.  The Fifth came out in 1889, so there was a twenty year gap between the Second and the Fifth Editions.

The subtle difference may simply be an accidental result of the changes in wording (over-reading again on my part), or it may reflect a change in FitzGerald's own world view that took place over that twenty year gap.  In the Second Edition, it seems as though Creation is fixed.  Note that the World has to "recreate" in order for us to catch the Book of Fate before it is "closed."  I understand that to mean Creation or Fate is now fixed and to make any changes we would have to begin again before any changes could be made.

It appears to be a different situation, though, in the Fifth Edition.   He wishes that "some winged Angel ere too late/  Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,"  This suggests to me that Fate is not yet fixed and changes could be made to "yet unfolded Roll of Fate."  The Roll is not yet folded, and therefore different entries could be made.  This seems to me to be a movement away from predestination.  Based on some earlier quatrains this is a change since some quatrains did suggest that this is a predestined world, and we had little to say about our fate.

Another interesting change occurs in the third line.  In the Second Edition, it is The Writer who will Inscribe our names, or quite obliterate!  The reference is to an objective or neutral scribe, while in the Fifth Edition, it is a stern Recorder who records our fate.  In the twenty years between the two editions, the depiction of the one who records our fate has gone from neutral to stern

Of the various themes in the Rubaiyat, this is probably the most despairing.  FitzGerald proposes two options: one would be to have "The Writer on a fairer leaf/ Inscribe our names, and if that is not possible then the Writer should quite obliterate our names from the Roll.  In other words, it would be better if we weren't born. If the " stern Recorder" doesn't change the Roll of Fate, then again the poet/narrator would prefer to be  quite obliterate.  In other words, with life being the way it is, it would be better not to have been born at all.

One question I do have: the responsibility of the Writer and the Recorder.  Do they decide our Fates or do they just follow orders and record them as dictated to them by another higher power?  I can't tell from the quatrains for they do not give a clue, or at least none that I can find.


  1. I am puzzled by Fate in this context. Are the Greek Fates analogous to the Recorder or Writer? I guess I am handicapped by insufficient context: not familiar with the whole, so I cannot sensibly comment upon the parts. Still, I'm puzzled.

  2. Tim,

    I've never really made anything approaching a thorough study of Fate, so I'm going on what little I know. It appears to me that the Fate either woven into a tapestry or that inscribed in the Roll of Fate are similar. It is beyond our control:

    Quatrain 49:

    '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.

    Quatrain 50

    The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,
    But Right or Left, as strikes the Player goes:
    And He that toss'd Thee down into the Field,
    He knows about it all--HE knows!

    God? Allah? The Three Fates? Destiny? Something else?

    Take your pick.

    1. a mystery hidden inside an enigma, as someone said... Omar's approach seems as apropos as any...

    2. Mudpuddle,

      Yes, some like Omar talk about the deity being inscrutable while others write books explaining the nature of the deity, and exactly just what that inscrutable deity wants.

  3. on this flower-strewn day
    the shape of every bee
    is perfect

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Those who are not content with what they have will never be content.

  4. Fate is an interesting concept. In Hindu it is "Karma" and master over all actions and events, yet one is reborn into a life form depending on one's actions during the present life.

    In Ancient Chinese and Japanese beliefs, the stars must be mapped out and our actions determined by "lucky" or "unlucky" days, numbers, Feng Shui etc..

    In Christianity, predestination is often confused with fate. It is not fate because man has free will. The question has been raised, "how can God be omnipotent if man has free will?"

    The answer is that God's power is absolute but man's free will is limited. It is exercised inside the boundaries ordained by Him. Rather like letting your children do whatever they want in the back yard but they may not climb the fence.

    I also look at it like a chess game (this idea came to me when I played a superior chess strategist): I can move my pieces however I like, but the Master Chess player is always going to win.

    In the Bible, predestination means that before time began, God knew His children. Of course there is quite a bit debate on that topic inside Christian circles...

    Your observations of Fitzgerald are very interesting. I would like to study him more and see what his personal beliefs were. Omar Kayyam was Muslim and I should study their idea of fate as well. I read the Koran but I don't recall anything there.

    1. Sharon,

      I think Fate, destiny, karma, whatever, is one of those perennial questions that have plagued humanity since Day One, and since it's been around so long without a satisfactory answer (one that satisfies all), I doubt there will be one.

      Just how much of FitzGerald's version of the Rubaiyat is Khayyam and how much is FitzGerald has been a matter of debate for a long time.

      I have a vague recollection of one statement in the Koran that hinted at predestination, but I won't swear to it.

      Yes, in the theology classes I took at a Catholic university one of the prime issues was free will and God's knowledge of the future, or rather, being outside of time, the past, present, and future were all one to God. I never did understand that. I think the RC position was that we were free, or relatively free, to make a choice even though God knew what we were going to choose. God's knowledge did not impinge on our freedom to make a choice.

    2. Hi Fred. After writing my comment I realized that Islam is all about "Inshallah" or God's will. I remember that was a frequent assertion in Arabian Nights (I read Richard Burton's translation). Whatever happens is Inshallah, which sounds rather fatalistic. But maybe it's just an affirmation of the belief that God is always in control regardless of circumstances.

      And then I thought about atheists such as Richard Dawkins who declares that all actions and beliefs are genetically predetermined and that humans are without free will.

      Of course my question to him is, were you genetically predetermined to make that statement? Oh what a can of worms we open....talking about myself, not you. You just asked an innocent question. :)

      That is an intriguing question you pose that deserves exploration. How much is Fitzgerald imposing his own beliefs on Khayyam? I suppose there are other translations?..

    3. Sharon,

      Below is the address of a site which has a number of translations of the Rubaiyat, including FitzGerald's.

    4. Thanks. I'm going to look up those other translations.

    5. Sharon,

      I'm interested in any comments you have after looking at some.

  5. Sharon,

    "And then I thought about atheists such as Richard Dawkins who declares that all actions and beliefs are genetically predetermined and that humans are without free will.

    Of course my question to him is, were you genetically predetermined to make that statement?"

    Chuckle . . .that's one of the pitfalls or traps of making widespread universal statements like that.