Today we return to the next section of Edward Fitzgerald’s 19th century translation of the Persian classic, the Rubai’Yat of Omar Khayyam, in my opinion a wonderful work in its own right despite, or perhaps because of not being an entirely faithful translation, according to those who know about such things. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate and I generally avoid poetry in translation, but this successfully achieves the status of being a poem I can visit and re-visit without getting tired of it.
Today’s section goes from stanza 59 to stanza 66. For the previous sections see the sequence of posts on this site on September 29th 2014, October 18th 2014, November 8th 2014, December 12th 2014 and January 20th 2015. Following this post, one more should take us to the end of the piece.
This section is somewhat unusual in that it is the only part of the poem which has its own sub-title, “The Book of Pots”, and indeed the stanzas that follow all build on the metaphor of the potter and the pots in his shop. But the overall philosophies and thoughts expressed are very consistent with the themes of the rest of the poem.
KUZA-NAMA (“Book of Pots.”)
Listen again. One Evening at the Close
Of Ramazan, ere the better Moon arose,
In that old Potter’s Shop I stood alone
With the clay Population round in Rows.
And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
And suddenly one more impatient cried—
“Who *is* the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”
Then said another—“Surely not in vain
“My Substance from the common Earth was ta’en,
“That He who subtly wrought me into Shape
“Should stamp me back to common Earth again.”
Another said—“Why, ne’er a peevish Boy,
“Would break the Bowl from which he drank in Joy;
“Shall He that *made* the Vessel in pure Love
“And Fancy, in an after Rage destroy!”
None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for learning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”
Said one—“Folk of a surly Tapster tell
“And daub his Visage with the Smoke of Hell;
“They talk of some strict Testing of us—Pish!
“He’s a Good Fellow, and ‘t will all be well.”
Then said another with a long-drawn Sigh,
“My Clay with long oblivion is gone dry:
“But, fill me with the old familiar Juice,
“Methinks I might recover by-and-bye!”
So while the Vessels one by one were speaking,
One spied the little Crescent all were seeking:
And then they jogg’d each other, “Brother! Brother!
“Hark to the Porter’s Shoulder-knot a-creaking!”
Stanza 59 sets the scene, with the poet standing in a potter’s shop one early evening near the end of Ramadan, with the light of the moon just beginning to shine. He is surrounded by shelves full of clay pots, made by the potter who owns the shop. This must have been a familiar setting in a Persian town or city, close to the bazaar.
Then, in the next stanza, the poet notices that some of the pots can speak, so he listens. All that follows in this section is a series of philosophical, existential, mystical, religious conundrums which a human might pose in relation to the meaning of life, the role of man and God, self-determination, free will, aging, why do imperfections exist and so on and so on. But here they are expressed by the pots, and the potter would be God or destiny.
It is perhaps a way of getting readers to think about these questions in a safe way, without challenging orthodox religious views or the general consensus with regard to humanity – these are only pots after all. It is perhaps significant that none of the questions are really answered, but posed as topics which are worthy of consideration by any thinking human (or pot with consciousness).
The final lines of stanza 66, bring us back to the fact that the potter is still busy making more pots – life and the human condition go on, irrespective of our puny efforts to make sense of it, and perhaps this is the real teaching here.
The Poetry Dude