Khayyám the Timekeeper

Posted on June 09, 2014 by Gary Carruthers

The Louvre, Paris, 7th June 2014

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light   [1]

Thus the Rubáiyát begins.  Ghiyāth ad-Dīn Abu'l-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī, known to most as Omar Khayyám, was a central figure in 11th century Persia.  This was the height of Persia's reign as the world centre for culture and scientific advancement, comparable only to Ptolemaic Alexandria, or Renaissance Europe.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly - and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing  [7]

Most know Khayyám only for his wine-soaked love poetry.  But that's like knowing Isaac Newton only for the apple that fell on his head.

Look to the Rose that blows about us - "Lo,
"Laughing," she says, "into the World I blow:
"At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
"Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw."   [13]

Khayyám, you wrote that when all we had here was Norman wisdom.  But you knew so much more.  A physicist and mathematician by day.  A poet only by perfume-scented night.

And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean -
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!   [19]

And, Khayyám, what is your ghost doing, swimming through my mind?  I long for your calendar, more accurate even than the one we use today, clinging to the equinoxes like they were your children.  How could we have forgotten all you knew, only to set dates by Pope Gregory's decree?

Khayyám!  Be out of my mind and chase the sweet perfume of the night.  Just leave me with that one verse, the one that lets me walk over fear:

Then to the rolling Heav'n itself I cried,
Asking, "What Lamp had Destiny to guide
"Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?
And - "A blind Understanding!" Heav'n replied   [33]


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