The Quarantine Quatrains: an occasional series

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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Filed under imagination, literature, Poems

25 responses to “The Quarantine Quatrains: an occasional series

  1. Janet Newsom

    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 …

  2. Miriam Westendarp

    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…..

    • malcolmguite

      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.

  4. Awena Carter

    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.

  5. 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

  6. jalcooperbtinternetcom

    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.

  7. 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 🙂

  8. David C Brown

    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.

  9. bgulland72

    fine stuff. And I love that image in the Fitzgerald, ‘hunter of the east… noose of light’ 🙂

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  11. Margaret A Jones

    Hi~ I didn’t receive a #3 episode of the Quatrains. Hope I didn’t miss
    it!. Thanks.
    Love in the Time of Coronavirus,

    • malcolmguite

      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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