The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyim



2/13/97


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam presents an interesting challenge to any reader trying to sort through its heavy symbolism and not-so-obvious theme. Not only does the poem provide us with a compelling surface story, but a second look at the text can reveal a rich collection of seperate meanings hidden in the poem\'s objective descriptions and sprawling narrative-which in the space of a few pages includes such disparate characters as the Moon, God, the Snake (and his traditional Christian neighborhood, Paradise), the "Balm of Life", not to mention nearly every animal and sexual symbol the human mind can come up with.
Obviously, on one level, the poem can present itself in a fairly straightforward manner in the vein of CARPE DIEM. In the third stanza, the author writes, "\'Open then the Door!/ You know how little while we have to stay,/ And, once departed, may return no more." There\'s several refrains to this throughout the poem, first in the seventh stanza: "Come, fill the cup. . ./ The Bird of Time has but a little way/ To flutter-and the bird is on the Wing." The entire ninth stanza describes the summer month "that brings the Rose" taking "Jamshyd and Kaikobad away", and so forth and so on ad nauseum. Again, in the fifty-third stanza: "You gaze To-Day, while You are You-how then/ Tomorrow, You when shall be You no more?" The poet seems to be in an incredible hurry to get this life going before some cosmic deadline comes due, and more than willing to encourage any of the laiety he encounters in the course of the poem to do the same.
Another recurring motif throughout the poem is the time-honored act of downing a few drinks. It appears that either "Wine", the "Cup" or "Bowl", and the "Grape" touch every stanza in the poem; the narrator seems to be an alcoholic. In the fifty-sixth stanza he dismisses everything so he can get drunk, having divorced Reason and married the Daughter of the Vine in the previous stanza: "Of all that one should care to fathom, I/ Was never deep in anything but-Wine." Later the narrator compares the Grape to an angel. It\'s clear this person has something of an obsession.
But all of these seemingly transparent references to drinking beg for a deeper analysis. Writing a really great poem about blowing off the next day to get trashed does not get you into the literary canon. Of particular interest is the symbol of the "Cup" or "Bowl" (or even "Pot" at one point in the poem), and the "Wine" that the narrator seems to be drawing out of it on every occasion.
The "Cup", in Western society, is nearly always synonymous with some sort of prize or contest. Besides the Cup being semi-obviously equated with the vagina and therefore a kind of sexual conquest in our society\'s male-driven history, there is also the legend of the Holy Grail-The Cup of Life, which grants eternal life to anybody lucky enough to find it. There is a parable in the Bible about a woman who, having been married several times out of either lust or financial necessity, goes to the well for water and finds Jesus there, dispensing wisdom in his usual manner. As she gets water, Jesus tells her, "Whosoever drinks from that well will thirst again." Whether or not this convinces the woman to renounce worldly pleasures and become a Christian is never made clear.
So what then is this "Cup" that the poet makes twenty-five references to throughout the poem (including "Vessel","Urn","Bowl", and "Glass")? It\'s fairly easy to argue that the cup is a symbol for life and the act of living. It\'s also a curse-no cup is bottomless, so it follows that:

a) you can\'t enjoy the wine unless you drink it, but
b) the more you drink, the quicker it ends.

Now a different theme arises from the symbols the author is using. Is it really time to "Seize the Day" and drink it up while we have the chance? The sixty-third stanza uses another symbol to explain it: "One thing is certain and the rest is Lies/ The Flower that once has blown for ever dies." Throughout the poem death is seen as being