Writing in a recent number of the New Century, Mr. Maurice H. Held states that the poet Omar has nothing to preach but the "doctrine of the body"! Speaking of the Ruba'iyat, he says: "The philosophy is wholly false — just another disappointed hymn to the God of sense-pleasure. Why do they fascinate?"
That is the question. Omar lived some nine centuries ago, yet his work has not been forgotten, and he is read more now than any poet of the old time. Whence his lasting and supreme fascination? It may spring from the badness of human nature, but then no bad thing can last very long. Persian mystics hold that he was not bad. He spoke in their own language; he used the symbolism they knew. And they say that he was a spiritual poet, a saint in his life. We have heard of the Grail, of the Wine of Divine Life; we know, too, who said "I am the Vine," and in what capacity he said it. Wine, then, is a symbol that the Persians were not alone in using.
Let us, then, attempt an analysis of these Ruba'iyat, verse by verse, as nearly as may be; an interpretation as the Persians interpreted them. It is better to understand than to condemn. Let us in doing so ask forgiveness for spoiling a work of art.
This is the understanding that many of Omar's admirers have of the poem: —
1. Awake! for the day is here.
2. Ere dawn a voice from the Holy of Holies called me: "The Temple is ready; why do the worshippers slumber still?"
3. Then cried those who waited without, "Let us in, for we have not long to live, and if we die undrunk with the Wine of Divine Life we may have no conscious hereafter."
4. The New Year is with us, and now the healing spirit of the prophets is budding out on the trees and breathing up from the earth. It is well to go into the solitude for meditation now.
5. Lost indeed are the Mysteries, but still the gem of Spirit-power burns in the holy Wine.
6. Silent are the olden poets, but still the nightingale sings.
7. Oh, take the Grail Cup and cast away doubt and hesitation! No long time is before you.
8. Wherever you are your life is slipping away. Now is the only time.
9. You say that each day brings its opportunities? Yes, but what of yesterday and its lost opportunities? In June the rose comes, but with its coming there is an end of telling stories of the heroes.
10. Well, let there be an end! What have we to do with the past?
11. Let us come to that place (which is neither too high nor too low) that is between the sown land thou knowest and the desert of the unknown.
12. There shalt thou sing truly, for there thou shalt drink of the Wine. There is the only Paradise to be sought and found.
13. Some seek for the glories (and pleasures) of this world, some for the Paradise to come. Take thou the only Paradise, which is here and now.
14. Consider the rose, that heedeth not the future nor the past, but is full of beauty here and now.
15. What of wealth? Those who seek or squander it cannot turn themselves into gold.
16. Men's worldly hopes may fail or prosper, yet the fruit of them passes away like snow on the desert.
17. Powerful and glorious kings have lived — and died.
18. And now wild beasts roam through their empty palaces.
19-20. But for all that, the Earth draws half her beauty from her noble dead. Men's lovely deeds live on, I think, and give their loveliness to herbs and flowers.
21. The past is dead; the future not yet born. Drink the Wine of True Oneness, that you may live in the Eternal Now.
22. For many loved ones in our ranks left us.
23-24. And we, too, may leave the ranks and sink down to a depraved state (i.e., unless we drink and drink and drink this Wine).
25. To those who prepare for the future in this life or in the next, a voice cries, "Fools! Heaven is neither here nor there" ("not in time, but in Eternity").
26. What has become of all the learned? Where is the profit of their discussions and debates?
27. I myself when I was young (and foolish) used to go in for their intellectualities — but I was none the wiser for them.
28. I sowed the seed of learning (not wisdom, please!) with the doctors and professors, and myself I studied diligently, and the conclusion I arrived at was: — "I came into the world, and shall go out of it, by chance."
29. The fruit of all my intellectualism was that I became a fatalistic agnostic.
30. What! leave the grand problem unsolved? remain contented with ignorance? The more must I seek now after the Divine, that I was such a fool and blasphemer then!
This is one of the most conclusive verses. On the hypothesis of "Omar the Wine-bibber," what sense on earth can be gotten from "What? without asking, whither hurried hence?" and following three lines.
31. I concentrated my being in intellect (the Throne of Saturn), and with my brain I unravelled many a scientific knot — but not the Master-Knot of human fate.
32. That is beyond mere intellect. Up to a point there is a personal consciousness; then we merge into the impersonal.
33. There was no answer to the problem in visible nature.
34. But a voice came to me from the Thee in Me who works behind the veil — the Me within Thee blind (i.e., destroy sense of separateness).
35. Then I went to the Wine of One-ness, and learned that without It there was no eternal existence for me.
At this stage Omar has shown how he became a materialist through trusting only in the brain-mind. Not content with that for long, he reaches out into the super-personal for light — and receive it. "The Me within Thee blind" — that is the key to it all. He has not yet learned the secret, but he has the key to it. In Ruba'i 35 he applies the key and drinks of the Wine, the One-ness Wine emphatically (for there is no other wine that could or that any man could dream had the power to reveal it), and learns the Secret. After two verses he begins to show what the Secret is. Meanwhile these two are humorous — and un-translateable. Omar is laughing — at the man who will not or cannot see his meaning, at the man who cannot see through his wine-bibbing pretences. But it is the laugh of a holy man, not of a drunkard, a laugh that should have, to some of us, a very recognizable ring in it! Drink then! for
38. Ancient stories say that man is a clay-clod saturated with Spirit.
39. And not a holy thought goes forth from us, but it is bound to bring some little measure of hope and light to those who are suffering in the lowest hells of the world.
Ah! Omar, there is the mark of holy Compassion with you! Shall we call you a sensualist now, when you are teaching what we teach our children to do in their Silent Moments? When was a sensualist compassionate?
40. As the Tulip is always looking to Heaven, do you be always looking towards the Higher Self.
41. Let no more problems vex you, but affix your consciousness to the Highest.
42. And even if you are to die, and forget all, you shall not be without the good of it when you live again. (Or, and even if in this life you fail, the foes you conquer now shall not be yours in the next life.)
43. You shall not fear death then, for this Wine maketh free the Soul from the trammels of the body.
44. And if the Winged Soul can be made free, is it not a shame to allow it to be evermore hampered by the flesh consciousness?
45. What is the body but a tent where the Royal Soul resteth for one day upon its journey?
46. And fear not that when one body dies it shall know the like no more. It useth myriads of forms.
Then Omar seizes the opportunity to laugh at vain and ambitious persons who have not learnt, through the Wine of Meditation, the duality of their nature. 46 and 47 are, so to say, bifurcate; he goes off on some of the imagery he has been just before using and with it teases those whom he wishes to tease.
49. Hasten, if you would know the secret.
50, 51, 52.
The writer has not the irreverence to alter or comment on these most sublime verses. They are as obvious as they are grand.
53. But if in this life you puzzle your brain-mind over the secret, what about the next life, when you will have another brain-mind, altogether?
54. Then do not waste your time with vain puzzling. The One-ness Wine that can teach you is at hand. Life is Joy.
55. You know how joyfully I put away old barren reason and took to the Higher Life and Mysticism (the daughter of the Vine).
56. For though I was famed as a mathematician, I never made anything a "living power in my life" but — Theosophy. Yes, they say, but what of my computations that resulted in the rectification of the calendar?
57. Well, I certainly have rectified the calendar — by striking from it every day except to-day. (The Eternal Now is the only Time.)
58. It was a Messenger who bade me choose this mode of life,
59. Who bade me choose that One-ness Wine that sets at rest the disputations of the jarring sects, that transmutes the lead of the lower into gold of the Higher Life.
60. The Warrior, that Mohammed within whose whirlwind sword scattereth the evil hordes that beset the Soul.
61. And am I to forsake this truth because orthodoxy forbids it?
62. Because the creeds threaten me with hell or lure me with promises of heaven?
63, 64, 65.
These are an attack on, or rather sneer at, orthodox Moslem ideas of heaven and hell. The creed of the day was formal and opposed to Sufi Truth. H.P.B. made attacks on Christian orthodoxy that caused some people to imagine fondly — and might reasonably cause it, if uncontested — that she denied the existence of any Supreme Spirit. Omar attacks in much the same way the narrow orthodoxy of his time.
66-67. As to heaven and hell, we make them for ourselves. Heaven for each one is that which he longs for; hell, that which he fears.
68. These personalities are but shadows cast on a screen by the "sun-illumined lantern held in midnight by the Master of the Show."
69. Pieces in a game of chess that God plays.
70. They do not understand, but He knows about it all.
71. And the causes of their moves are things done; action is followed by reaction, nothing can bend the Law.
72. Lift not your hands, then, for help to the sky. It is bound by the same Law as we are.
73. The first germ of the Universe contained everything that ever was to be. All are parts of an unbroken chain of cause and effect.
74. Yesterday you sowed the seed, to-day you reap the fruit. Drink! for the Wine of One-ness alone can show you the meaning of it all.
75-76. Let the beggar-priests of orthodoxy flout at me! The Vine hath struck a fibre in my being, and therefore I shall pass through doors they howl without.
77. And whether the One True Light kindles me to love or to wrath (with orthodox shams?), one flash of it in my own heart is better than its absence in all the mosques in the world.
In these verses Omar puts himself into the place of a "True Believer" and addresses the imagined personal God in such a manner as to prove the falsity of the crudities of Semitic religion. But they are not his own words to his own Deity.
"Whose secret presence through creation's veins,
Running quicksilver-like, eludes your pains,
Taking all forms from Mah to Mahi, and
They change, and perish all, but He remains."
With the 82d Ruba'i begins the Parable of the Pots, which needs no explanation. It is a discussion between certain pots in a potter's house as to the nature of their maker, and in this way many views about the Deity are brought forward. Omar's humor is never far away in this parable. Thus he speaks of "One of the loquacious lot, I think some Sufi pipkin, waxing hot" — a sly laugh perhaps at a former self of his own, or at any young follower of mysticism in the stage when he must be talking and talking and talking about the holy things, and that regardless of time and place. The last pot that speaks is the one after Omar's own heart: —
"Well," whispered one "let whoso sell or buy,
My clay with long oblivion has gone dry.
But fill me with the old familiar juice,
Methinks I might recover by and bye."
This is the man that is not concerned with things irrelevant to the present need of the soul.
Continuing at verse 91 we have this aspiration, veiled though it is in the sensuous words of Persian poetry: —
91. Let my life be so permeated with the Divine Spirit.
92. That even when I am dead its aroma may lure people away from the material to the spiritual things.
93. No doubt my mysticism has injured me in the sight of the world; it has drowned my fame, but in the Grail-cup; it has sold my reputation, but given me to be a poet instead.
94. And no doubt I have been tempted many times to give up this path for the way of the world; but each time the recurring cycle of the influx of spiritual life has swept the temptation away.
95. And indeed mine was the better choice. What could be so precious a thing as that I chose?
96. Yet, alas, that there are and must be seasons of darkness!
97. Would that on our journey along the path we could always see the goal!
As for the last four Ruba'iyat in Fitzgerald (98-101) I can make nothing of them. They may have no other than a surface meaning, and still (for we may doubt it without fear) be genuine verse by Omar Khayyam of Naishapur; but Fitzgerald let the Art-for-art's-sake sense overcome him when he put them at the end of the book. A poet has a right to sing of sad things, for they, too, have a part in life. But he has no right, if he is a poet of the true order of the Bards or Teachers, and not a mere singer, to let the last word of his song message be sorrowful, because the deepness and finality of all things is not sorrowful, but full of golden joy. And therefore I think that out of the many hundreds of Ruba'iyat attributed to the Tentmaker that remain in various MSS. in Iran, Fitzgerald might have found more excellent ones for the end than those with the sad note in them. But be that as it may, even a careless and inadequate interpretation like the above (wherein the connection with the text may seem far enough fetched in many cases) does abolish, for mystics, the idea that the Mighty Bard of Naishapur taught the "doctrine of the body" — does it not?