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Omar Khayyam … An alternate translation of the  RUBÁIYÁT of Omar Khayyam by Justin Huntly McCarthy was published in 1900. It is under the same cover as the edition discussed in yesterday’s post about Edward Fitzgerald‘s interpretation of the same subject material. McCarthy’s version hasn’t been poeticized and is wordier, but this may bring us closer to the original than the work of Fitzgerald, which helped romanticize the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

This painting The Hireling Shepherd, from Wikipedia, by the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt has similar symbolism as the RUBÁIYÁT. Romance in the wilderness with a tankard of wine prominent, and Eve’s apples being violated in her lap. Animal natures running away from their flock and their distracted shepherd.

McCarthy writes:

“Since life flies, what matters it whether it be sweet or bitter? Since our souls must escape through our lips, what matters it whether it be at Naishápúr or Babylon? Drink, then, for after thou and I are dust, the moon will for many days pass from her last to her first quarter, and from her first to her last.”

Fitzgerald versifies as:

“Whether at Naishápúr  or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.”

Here are a few of my favorite McCarthy translations of Omar:

LXXII
Although, truly, I have never pierced the pearl of obedience which we owe to Thee, although I have never swept the dust of Thy steps from my heart, I do not despair of reaching to the foot of the throne of Thy mercy, for I have never worried Thee with my importunate prayers.”

LXXXVIII
I would rather in the tavern with thee pour out all the thoughts of my heart, than without thee go and make my prayer unto Heaven. This, truly, O Creator of all things present and to come, is my religion; whether Thou castest me into the flames, or makest me glad with the light of Thy countenance.

CV
There is no shield to save you from the spear-cast of destiny. Glory, gold, silver, each avails not. The more I ponder on this world and its gear, the more I am assured that to be good is all; the rest avails not.

CIX
To drink wine and to make merry, such is my scheme of life.
to pay no heed to heretic or devotee, such is my creed. I ask the bride of all the human race, “What is thy marriage portion?” and she answered, smiling, “My marriage portion lies in the joy of thy heart.”

CXI
No day ever finds my soul free from amazement, no night ever finds my bosom free from the tears that trickle from my eyes. The unease that sways me forbids the cup of my head from brimming with wine. Alas, how shall an inverted cup be ever filled?

CXXII
O you who out of all the world art dearest to my heart, more precious than the soul which quickens me or than the eyes that light my path, there is nothing, oh my beloved, dearer than life, and yet you, ah, you are a hundred times more dear.

CLVIII
For the love of thee which possesses my heart I am ready to accept all manner of reproof, and if I break my vow, I will bear the blame thereof. Oh, if until the last day I should endure the pain thou causest me, the time would seem but too short.

CLX
Of all who have set out upon the long journey, who has come back, that I may ask him tidings? My friends, take heed to let naught go by in the hope of hopes for, be sure, you will not come back again.

CLXXIII
O! my heart, act as if all the wealth of this world were thine—think that this house is furnished with all things, that it is adorned sumptuously; and pass thy life joyfully in this distracted sphere. Say to thyself that thou restest here for but a few days, and wilt then arise and depart.


Justin Huntly McCarthy deserves to be considered a significant writer, at least in my judgment. He sees the world clearly and asks nothing particularly unusual from it. And he would be pleased to live much of his time in the simple life that Fitzgerald proposed in Quatrain XII (1889).

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!