Before going in for brain surgery in 2013, I feared that studying, researching and thinking too much about my condition would leave me bereft of hope. I dreaded being swept up with sadness or anxiety or both. I resolved to trust in all my doctors and in the destiny already laid out before me. To achieve that state of mind I returned to reciting the quatrains found in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. As a result, I was able to enter Virginia Mason Hospital calm, a bit exhausted, and filled with acceptance.
Three years later, I reached a similar moment in the 2016 elections in Europe and America. I finally gave up trying to make all the puzzle parts fit together. In that year, I returned to Omar’s mythic, ironic, fatalistic poetry my father used to recite out loud. I was searching for comic relief in our human tragedy. Perhaps I found it in these two lines.
The optimist emphatically states, “It is the best of times…”
The pessimist chuckles, and declares, ” I agree…”
Omar Khayyam (1048 to 1131) was the Persian Empire’s Albert Einstein during their renaissance. As noted earlier, some 600 years later and about 6000 kilometers away, the Victorian bohemian Edward FitzGerald would emerge as his world-famous English interpreter. Back then, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and John Stuart Mill’s liberal essay On Liberty reflected the shift in thinking in those changing times. They espoused a humanistic outlook rejecting powerful elites who based their iron rule on dogmatic religions.
At the very epicenter of this turbulent year, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities describes a society at war with itself, unsure of its future, with the following soulful lines:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
I believe the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám guides us in filling the void in these moments when the traditional ground seems to fall away from our feet. After FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát release in 1859 it slowly built an eternal audience with an average of five titles being released each year reprinting and/or reinterpreting the poetry. The imagery in the Rubáiyát has always inspired those who search for meaning in every generation. One of my favorite quatrains follows.
For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-Show
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.
The mythic and ironic language of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám exhorts us to avoid indulging in self-pitying sorrow. The poets urge us to let go of the long dead past and stop worrying about a future not yet here. Their verse gently reminds us to enjoy the present moment by sitting in the wilderness with a companion, a book of verse, and a jug of wine.
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Is it any wonder the Rubáiyát would end up being widely distributed in art galleries, schools, libraries, homes, or kept close at hand in the knapsacks of hikers and soldiers? In 2016 I set off to collect my own contemporary quatrains in the brief title Kibbles for the Soul, and later followed by Photo•Poem.
The similarities between the present era and 1859 are captured in Dickens’s lines expressing feelings of abandonment within a chaotic moment. Omar Khayyám’s and Edward FitzGerald’s search for meaning and purpose on the third rock from the sun is as old as the ancient cave paintings uncovered by anthropologists. This is why I predict the knapsacks and purses will again fill with e-books or print versions of the FitzOmar verse and other contemporary quatrains in the 21st Century. Hopefully my 185 quatrain sums a bit of this up.
We saw the best and worst in our brief time…
Did the divine hand author this design?
At war with doubt and despair, We grinned,
winked—then toasted our survival with wine.
NOTE: This piece is excerpted from Photo•Poems, Living your Best Life Even in the Worst of Times by Martin Kimeldorf.