A little of Omar Khayyám’s wisdom

Omar Khayyám was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet, widely considered to be one of the most influential scientists of the middle ages.

I came across some of his verses in Hitchen’s Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. I’m not too keen on poetry in general, and I don’t agree with some of his views, but Khayyám’s sharp wit really caught my eye.

There’s great humbleness, pragmatism, and irreverence in his words. I would have absolutely loved to have had a drink (or three) with this brilliant man.

The bird of life is singing on the bough
His two eternal notes of “I and Thou”—
O! hearken well, for soon the song sings through,
And, would we hear it, we must hear it now.

The bird of life is singing in the sun,
Short is his song, nor only just begun,—
A call, a trill, a rapture, then—so soon!—
A silence, and the song is done—is done.

Yea! what is man that deems himself divine?
Man is a flagon, and his soul the wine;
Man is a reed, his soul the sound therein;
Man is a lantern, and his soul the shine.

Would you be happy! hearken, then, the way:
Heed not To-morrow, heed not Yesterday;
The magic words of life are Here and Now—
O fools, that after some to-morrow stray!

Were I a Sultan, say what greater bliss
Were mine to summon to my side than this,—
Dear gleaming face, far brighter than the moon!
O Love! and this immortalizing kiss.

To all of us the thought of heaven is dear—
Why not be sure of it and make it here?
No doubt there is a heaven yonder too,
But ‘tis so far away—and you are near.

Men talk of heaven,—there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell,—there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,—
O love, there is no other life—but here.

Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane,
This playful wisdom growing out of pain;
How many midnights whitened into morn
Before the seeker knew he sought in vain.

You want to know the Secret—so did I,
Low in the dust I sought it, and on high
Sought it in awful flight from star to star,
The Sultan’s watchman of the starry sky.

Up, up, where Parwin’s hoofs stamp heaven’s floor,
My soul went knocking at each starry door,
Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair,
Clear-eyed I looked—and laughed—and climbed no more.

Of all my seeking this is all my gain:
No agony of any mortal brain
Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;
The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

Yet sometimes on a sudden all seems clear—
Hush! hush! my soul, the Secret draweth near;
Make silence ready for the speech divine—
If Heaven should speak, and there be none to hear!

Yea! sometimes on the instant all seems plain,
The simple sun could tell us, or the rain;
The world, caught dreaming with a look of heaven,
Seems on a sudden tip-toe to explain.

Like to a maid who exquisitely turns
A promising face to him who, waiting, burns
In hell to hear her answer—so the world
Tricks all, and hints what no man ever learns.

Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.

But here are wine and beautiful young girls,
Be wise and hide your Sorrows in their curls,
Dive as you will in life’s mysterious sea,
You shall not bring us any better pearls.

Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;
If Allah be, He keeps His secret well;
What He hath hidden, who shall hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?

So since with all my passion and my skill,
The world’s mysterious meaning mocks me still,
Shall I not piously believe that I
Am kept in darkness by the heavenly will?

The Koran! well, come put me to the test—
Lovely old book in hideous error drest—
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.

And do you think that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
God gave the Secret, and denied it me?—
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that too.

Old Khayyám, say you, is a debauchee;
If only you were half so good as he!
He sins no sins but gentle drunkenness,
Great-hearted mirth, and kind adultery.

But yours the cold heart, and the murderous tongue,
The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,
The close-shut fist, the mean and measuring eye,
And all the little poisoned ways of wrong.

So I be written in the Book of Love,
I have no care about that book above;
Erase my name, or write it, as you please—
So I be written in the Book of Love.

What care I, love, for what the Sufis say?
The Sufis are but drunk another way;
So you be drunk, it matters not the means,
So you be drunk—and glorify your clay.

Drunken myself, and with a merry mind,
An old man passed me, all in vine-leaves twined;
I said, “Old man, hast thou forgotten God?”
“Go, drink yourself,” he said, “for God is kind.”

“Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
And at the same time make it sin to drink?
Give thanks to Him who foreordained it thus—
Surely He loves to hear the glasses clink!”

From God’s own hand this earthly vessel came,
He shaped it thus, be it for fame or shame;
If it be fair—to God be all the praise,
If it be foul—to God alone the blame.

To me there is much comfort in the thought
That all our agonies can alter nought,
Our lives are written to their latest word,
We but repeat a lesson He hath taught.

Our wildest wrong is part of His great Right,
Our weakness is the shadow of His might,
Our sins are His, forgiven long ago,
To make His mercy more exceeding bright.

When first the stars were made and planets seven,
Already was it told of me in Heaven
That God had chosen me to sing His Vine,
And in my dust had thrown the vinous leaven.

Excerpt of the Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám paraphrased from several literal translations by Richard Le Gallienne.

Hekanibru