I have been re-reading Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, an old favourite. Somehow its tone of wistful elegy, poignant celebration of every passing beauty, defiant affirmation of love and life, and yet humble acceptance of mortality, seem even more fitting for this time, than for the many other phases and stages of life in which I have enjoyed that poem.
I was also savouring again the elegance of the quatrain form: the way those four-line stanzas work on the ear and the eye, Fitzgerald’s beautiful and mellifluous rhyming all on one sound in each quatrain, the way the first couplet sets up your expectations and the unrhymed third line increases the tension, then acts as a launchpad for the clinching final rhyme. If you read the first three quatrains in the picture above, of my little Folio Society edition, you’ll see what I mean. I was surprised to realise that I had not yet tried this particular form myself.
All these musings led me to wonder whether it might not be fun to have a go at some occasional ‘Quarantine Quatrains’, to take a leaf out of Fitzgerald’s book, and start crafting a Rubaiyat for our own times. And that is exactly what I have decided to do. I start my quatrains with the same word that opens the Rubaiyat: ‘Awake!’ but I am trying, whilst keeping some echoes of the original, to make the poem contemporary rather than pastiche, so we’ll see how it goes. Anyway, here is the first instalment this new sequence, as usual you can hear me read it by clicking on the title or the ‘Play’ Button.
Quarantine Quatrains: A New Rubaiyat
Awake to what was once a busy day
When you would rush and hurry on your way
Snatch at your breakfast, start the grim commute
But time and tide have turned another way
For now, like you, the day is yawning wide
And all its old events are set aside
It opens gently for you, takes its time
And holds for you -whatever you decide.
This morning’s light is brighter than it seems
Your room is raftered with its golden beams
The bowl of night was richly filled with sleep
And dawn’s left hand is holding all your dreams
Your mantel clock still sounds its silver chime
The empty page invites an idle rhyme
This quarantine has taken many things
But left you with the precious gift of time
Your time is all your own – yet not your own
The rose may open, or be overblown
So breathe in this day’s fragrance whilst you may
To each of us the date of death’s unknown.
Then settle at your desk, uncap your pen
And open the old manuscript again
The empty hours may tease you out of thought
Yet leave you with a poem now and then.
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25 responses to “The Quarantine Quatrains: an occasional series”
Thanks, Malcolm! Really enjoyed this!
Have found your poems during this time helpful, stimulating, thought provoking …. at a time there is more time to think.
Looking forward to the next …
I love this! The form of the Rubaiyat is one of my favourites, for precisely the reasons that you explain, Malcolm. But I was particularly touched by the page you leave the book open at in your image, as we have a tradition in our family held ever since the children were tiny (they are now mid-life adults) that my husband Charles would declaim that opening verse, just those four lines, from the staircase outside the children’s bedrooms on Christmas morning, to arouse everyone to stockings and joy. It is particularly poignant because he died last April, so last Christmas for the first time our son took on the mantle of declaiming it in Charles’s place, and everyone was aware of the magnitude of the shift. But it was also funny because it has been a running family gag that Charles never actually got it right. He always tripped up over something, however much we had tested him on Christmas Eve. Luke, by contrast, was flawless first time…..
Yes. My mother used to wake me with that verse so I’m glad it’s a family tradition with you too. I’m going to say more about it in my ‘Spell in the Library’ YouTube series tonight
From my reading, there seemed a pensive reflective muse at work here, it’s tone a tad melancholy…as if viewing ones circumstance from purgatory, the muse counsels a loving father-like urgency to seize the moment and make the best of it. For me at least, the rhyme and rhythm flowed very much like children’s poetry of the late 19th century that my maternal English grandmother would read to me. Always with a gentle reminder at closing, not to waste what has so generously been provided.
Yes there is a not of melancholy and of elegy as there is in all our songs of exile
Thank you for these quartraines for our quarentine and thank you for your column in the Church t\imes. When I was eleven, an old lady (probably younger than I am now) gave me a wonderful pile of books, a beautifully bound copy of the Fitzgerald Rubaiyat among them. I used energetically to wake my younger brother each morning by reciting the first quatrain. I can still remember his loud complaints.
Excellent. That is precisely the way in which a younger brother should be awoken!
Inspiring! A brilliant and beautiful re-breathing of this living poem… Thank you, Malcolm.
I’m also cherishing each moment of tea with you in your study. Those conversations are joyous. Far from being monologues, they prompt further conversations of my own as I share them with friends. (Alas, I cannot smoke a pipe due to my asthma, but I do not begrudge your enjoyment whilst I have my tea.)
Peace, Kerry from Oklahoma
Thanks Kerry I raise a cuppa in your direction
Thank you once again. I marvel at the way these lovely poems flow from you. I have not the words to express the joy and pleasure your poetry has given me over the past few years and how I love being able to share them.
Many thanks for your encouragement
My grandfather used to wake his children by stepping into their rooms and bellowing “Awake! for morning in the bowl of night” etc – though apparently that initial “Awake!” was all it took.
The first gift I ever gave my now-husband was a beautifully bound copy of the Rubaiyat. It was by far the nicest of the various copies I had (of different editions of Fitzgerald’s translation/s), so I cheekily didn’t give it until I was fairly certain it would pass into my possession again in due course 🙂
Thanks my mother woke me in a similar way!
Awake, for morning with it’s wash of light
Had faded all the stars and dreams of night,
And lo! the Hunter of the sky has brought
Some fresh and vivid verse from Malcolm Guite.
Thanks for mutual enjoyment here and in the library.
fine stuff. And I love that image in the Fitzgerald, ‘hunter of the east… noose of light’ 🙂
Yes it’s a fabulous image isn’t it
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Hi~ I didn’t receive a #3 episode of the Quatrains. Hope I didn’t miss
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
I posted a third one today about bird song but I didn’t number it because I have changed the order
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INteresting comment on quarantine at: http://jesusrhymetime.blogspot.com/search/label/40%20days
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