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.
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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