Brought to you by Curio , an Aeon partner. Edited by Nigel Warburton. How did a line poem based on the writings of a Persian sage and advocating seize-the-day hedonism achieve widespread popularity in Victorian England?
Omar dining clubs sprang up, and you could even buy Omar tooth powder and illustrated playing cards. During the war, dead soldiers were found in the trenches with battered copies tucked away in their pockets. The answer sings out from some of its most famous verses:. It was a passionate outcry against the unofficial Victorian ideologies of moderation, primness and self-control.
This heady union of bodily pleasures, religious doubt and impending mortality captured the imagination of its Victorian audience, who had been raised singing pious hymns at church on a Sunday morning.
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He took up its themes in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray For Wilde, as for FitzGerald, carpe diem hedonism was far more than the pursuit of sensory pleasures: it was a subversive political act with the power to reshape the cultural landscape. On the one hand, it could serve as an antidote to a growing puritanical streak in modern happiness thinking, which threatens to turn us into self-controlled moderation addicts who rarely express a passionate lust for life.
Pick up a book from the self-help shelves and it is unlikely to advise dealing with your problems by smoking a joint under the stars or downing a few tequila slammers in an all-night club. Yet such hedonistic pursuits — enjoyed sensibly — have been central to human culture and wellbeing for centuries: when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they discovered the Aztecs tripping on magic mushrooms.
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How ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ inspired Victorian hedonists | Aeon Ideas
One thing at least is certain — This Life flies; One thing is certain and the rest is Lies; The Flower that once has blown for ever dies. Some writers have insisted on a mystical interpretation and M. Aldis Wright, M. You know how little while we have to stay, And, once departed, may return no more. Red Wine! And we, that now make merry in the Room They left, and Summer dresses in new Bloom, Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth Descend, ourselves to make a Couch—for whom?
Myself when young did eagerly frequent Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument About it and about: but evermore Came out by the same Door as in I went. Into this Universe, and why not knowing, Nor whence , like Water willy-nilly flowing: And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, I know not whither , willy-nilly blowing.
What, without asking, hither hurried whence? And, without asking, whither hurried hence! Another and another Cup to drown The Memory of this Impertinence! How long, how long, in definite Pursuit Of This and That endeavour and dispute? Better be merry with the fruitful Grape Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit. Listen again. Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before I swore—but was I sober when I swore? And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand My thread-bare Penitence apieces tore. Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang, Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows! Ah, Love!
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He died in the year If Thou—then what this abject Impotence? If I—the Pumpkin why on You? If You—then Where am I, and Who? Oh God! And because All are not Good, be slow to pray for One Whom having you may have to pray to lose. One more Prayer! For what is Woman? And Lo! Thus by innumerable Bridal wiles She went about soliciting his Eyes, Which she would scarce let lose her for a Moment; For well she knew that mainly by the Eye Love makes his Sign, and by no other Road Enters and takes possession of the Heart. For what thy Proper Pastime? Died the Root—and with it died The Branch—and barren was brought down!
But when upon that Moon I think , my Soul relapses—and when look — I leave both Worlds behind to follow her! The Shah ceased Counsel, and the Sage began. From that which I originally am How shall I swerve? Oh Misery! Arise, Oh Moon of Majesty unwaned!
Beer Dinner at Rubaiyat
Oh Spurn them not behind Thee! Ah the poor Lover! Oh so long The Light that fed these Eyes now dark with Tears! Oh were I but with Thee! Oh my Camel! Lo, I have said!
Help Thou Me, For I am very wretched! The Crown of Empire how supreme a Lot! The Tyrant goes to Hell—follow not Him—. For which is for the other, Flock or Shepherd? And join with Thee true Men to keep the Flock.
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What signifies The Shah? And what the Kingdom that awaited him When he had drawn his Garment from her Hand? What means that Fiery Pile? For what is Zuhrah? That for which mainly books exist is communicated in these rich extracts. Many qualities go to make a good telescope,—as the largeness of the field, facility of sweeping the meridian, achromatic purity of lenses, and so forth,—but the one eminent value is the space penetrating power; and there are many virtues in books,—but the essential value is the adding of knowledge to our stock, by the record of new facts, and, better, by the record of intuitions, which distribute facts, and are the formulas which supersede all histories.
Oriental life and society, especially in the Southern nations, stand in violent contrast with the multitudinous detail, the secular stability, and the vast average of comfort of the Western nations. Life in the East is fierce, short, hazardous, and in extremes. Its elements are few and simple, not exhibiting the long range and undulation of European existence, but rapidly reaching the best and the worst.
All or nothing is the genius of Oriental life. Favour of the Sultan, or his displeasure, is a question of Fate. A war is undertaken for an epigram or a distich, as in Europe for a duchy. The prolific sun, and the sudden and rank plenty which his heat engenders, make subsistence easy. On the other side, the desert, the simoom, the mirage, the lion, and the plague endanger it, and life hangs on the contingency of a skin of water more or less. The very geography of old Persia showed these contrasts.
The religion teaches an inexorable Destiny. Courage and absolute submission to what is appointed him are his virtues. The favour of the climate making subsistence easy and encouraging an outdoor life, allows to the Eastern nations a highly intellectual organization,—leaving out of view, at present, the genius of the Hindoos more Oriental in every sense , whom no people have surpassed in the grandeur of their ethical statement. The Persians and the Arabs, with great leisure and few books, are exquisitely sensible to the pleasures of poetry. Layard has given some details of the effect which the improvvisatori produced on the children of the desert.
The other Bedouins were scarcely less moved by these rude measures, which have the same kind of effect on the wild tribes of the Persian mountains.
Such verses, chanted by their self-taught poets, or by the girls of their encampment, will drive warriors to the combat, fearless of death, or prove an ample reward, on their return from the dangers of the ghazon , or the fight. He who would understand the influence of the Homeric ballads in the heroic ages should witness the effect which similar compositions have upon the wild nomads of the East. The Persian poetry rests on a mythology whose few legends are connected with the Jewish history, and the anterior traditions of the Pentateuch.
The principal figure in the allusions of Eastern poetry is Solomon. Solomon had three talismans; first, the signet-ring, by which he commanded the spirits, on the stone of which was engraven the name of God; second, the glass, in which he saw the secrets of his enemies, and the causes of all things, figured; the third, the east-wind, which was his horse. His counsellor was Simorg, king of birds, the all-wise fowl, who had lived ever since the beginning of the world, and now lives alone on the highest summit of Mount Kaf.
No fowler has taken him, and none now living has seen him. By him Solomon was taught the language of birds, so that he heard secrets whenever he went into his gardens. When all were in order, the east-wind, at his command, took up the carpet and transported it, with all that were upon it, whither he pleased,—the army of birds at the same time flying overhead, and forming a canopy to shade them from the sun.
It is related that when the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, he had built, against her arrival, a palace, of which the floor or pavement was of glass, laid over running water, in which fish were swimming. The Queen of Sheba was deceived thereby, and raised her robes, thinking she was to pass through the water. Behind them all came the ant, with a blade of grass: Solomon did not despise the gift of the ant. Asaph, the vizier, at a certain time, lost the seal of Solomon, which one of the Dews, or evil spirits, found, and, governing in the name of Solomon, deceived the people.
The crocodile in the rolling stream had no safety from Afrasiyab.