‘Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days

Today’s poem is the continuation of previous posts containing Edward Fitzgerald’s 19th century classic translation of the Persian poem sequence ” The Rubaiy’yat of Omar Khayyam”. The previous posts, to be found in the entries for September 28th, November 7th, November 25th and December 28th, all in 2014, covered the first 48 stanzas of the poem. Today we have stanzas 49 to 58, so I guess another two postings will take us to the end.

As said previously, Fitzgerald’s is purportedly a very loose translation, but has far greater poetic merit than the more rigorous attempts at translation which I have seen.

This poem is a classic expression of joyous acceptance of the vagaries and circumstances of life, exhortation to live life to the full in the moment and rejection of the illusory vanities of wealth, power and ambition. I can drink to that…


‘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.
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—HE knows!
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to *It* for help—for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.
With Earth’s first Clay They did the Last Man’s knead,
And then of the Last Harvest sow’d the Seed:
Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.
I tell Thee this—When, starting from the Goal,
Over the shoulders of the flaming Foal
Of Heav’n Parvin and Mushtara they flung,
In my predestin’d Plot of Dust and Soul
The Vine had struck a Fibre; which about
It clings my Being—let the Sufi flout;
Of my Base Metal may be filed a Key,
That shall unlock the Door he howls without
And this I know: whether the one True Light,
Kindle to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,
One Glimpse of It within the Tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.
Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?
Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give—and take!

From <https://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/okhym.htm&gt;

This section of the poem mainly consists of a series of metaphors and images illustrating that man cannot alter his fate, so he should just accept his lot in life and make the best of it. First there is the image of the chequer-board, then the ball game, in both of which man is just the object of arbitrary moves by the forces of destiny.

Then we have in stanza 51 a very famous phrase – ” The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all the piety and wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all the tears wash out a word of it”. What’s past is done with and cannot be altered, therefore there is no place or usefulness for regret or “what if” fantasies (or indeed putting weight on sunk costs in forward investment decisions).

And in Stanza 52, it is futile to lift up your eyes and implore heaven to change your fate, for it is just as powerless as humanity to change predetermined destiny. The next three stanzas reinforce the notions of destiny and man being caught up in a game with no chance of influencing its outcome. The references in stanzas 54 and 55 are somewhat obscure to this modern reader, but coming to Stanza 56, there is a return to one of the strongest themes of the whole poem – the tavern is a better place than the temple for man to come to terms with his place in the world and make the best he can of it. Once again, I’ll drink to that.

We will carry on with the next section of this great poem in a future post quite soon.

The Poetry Dude


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s