What is the Greatest Carpe Diem Poem of Them All? Try The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

rubaiyat-by-dulac

Hello to you all. I hope you managed to seize plenty of days over the summer. For my part, I’ve been seizing a new title for my forthcoming book. After much debate and soul-searching, it will now be called Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, rather than the original title used for the crowdfunding campaign, Carpe Diem Reclaimed: The Story of a Cultural Hijack. Fingers crossed that you like the new title. I certainly do – more poetic in my view, and closer to the real message of the book.

Speaking of poetry, I’ve decided to add a sneaky little appendix that contains not only top films and songs on the theme of carpe diem, but a selection of the greatest poetry too. Just to give you a sneak preview, one of them is that almost-forgotten classic, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam.

For those who don’t know it, the Rubáiyát is a long poem by the eccentric English scholar Edward FitzGerald, based on his loose translation of verses by the eleventh-century Persian poet and mathematician ʽUmar Khayyām.

The initial publication of the Rubáiyát in 1859 – the same year as Darwin’s On The Origin of Species – went completely unnoticed: it didn’t sell a single copy in its first two years. But by chance a remaindered copy of FitzGerald’s twenty-page booklet was picked up for a penny by the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who passed it on to Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who subsequently fell in love with it and sang its praises to his Pre-Raphaelite circle. In 1863 John Ruskin declared, ‘I never did – till this day – read anything so glorious’, and from there began a cult of Omar Khayyam that lasted at least until World War One, by which time there were 447 editions of Fitzgerald’s translation in circulation.

The poem was memorised, quoted and worshipped by a whole generation. Omár Khayyam dining clubs sprang up, and you could even buy Omar tooth powder and playing cards. During the war, dead soldiers were found in the trenches with battered copies in their pockets.

What was the attraction of the Rubáiyát? The answer lies in some of its most famous verses:

 

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, – and sans End!

 

Then to the lip of this poor earthen Urn

I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:

And Lip to Lip it murmur’d – “While you live

Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.”

 

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!

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.

 

The carpe diem calling of the Rubáiyát was unmistakable. It’s no wonder that the writer G. K. Chesterton declared the poem to be the bible of the ‘carpe diem religion’.

The Rubáiyát may or may not do it for you. So I’m intrigued to know of your own favourite poem or poems that evoke the spirit of seizing the day. Please tell me about them in the comments section below – I’d love to hear from you.

I would also appreciate another favour. Many people think that once a book from the crowd-funding publisher Unbound reaches 100% (as mine has) then you can no longer pledge support to it. Wrong! It is still possible to make a pledge and get your name printed in the back. So please do sign up if you’d like a copy, and it would be great if you could share the link with a few family and friends, and encourage them to join the merry band of 450 supporters: https://unbound.com/books/carpe-diem-reclaimed

Thanks and best wishes

Roman

5 thoughts on “What is the Greatest Carpe Diem Poem of Them All? Try The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

  1. Your book brings a beautiful idea but we are so busy with stuff that muddle the brain and before we know it the day is Gone! I am not too much of a poetry person but my favorite poet that their poetry spoke to me are Gibran and Elias abu MADI. Have you heard of these twords. Gibran is famous I know most people know of him. Will look up your book!
    Love,
    Badria

  2. I really look forward to your book! I have great respect for Alain de Botton and the School of Life, who I know you work with. There is a wonderful theme of being reconciled with the world running through their youtube videos. But very much in the spirit of what your saying, this Aussie wants to know when is it right to FIGHT. To ‘seize the day’ against mediocrity, the parochial status quo etc… How should we be a John Ruskin and a William Morris in the face of modernity, rather than so much self help drivel that encourages us to remain so… well behaved, respectable and middle class – under a superficial guise of buddhism and hellenistic philosophy. When is it right to attack injustice and call out mediocrity, cultural shallowness and hypocrasy. In the political sphere with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders we see this but the cultural sphere is as placid as the member of one devoid of any sexual drive. The cultural sphere seems stuck on the repetative broken record of the slightly has-been revolution of ‘post-1968’ – where is the kind of carpe deum aesthetic vision for a whole generation, like that of a Ruskin? Will we seize the day in the humanities and the cultural sphere?

  3. Dominique, great thoughts. I completely agree. There is too much navel-gazing individualism in the cultural sphere that inherently accepts the status quo. My new book has a whole chapter on the politics of seizing the day – what it means to do it on a collective scale to bring about social change and challenge injustice. It’s time to light the fire of carpe diem and bring it from the personal into the political. One of the great historical problems of carpe diem is that it has lacked ethical foundations as a concept, and my book attempts to deal with this.

    Badria, thanks for the reference to Elias Abu Madi – I look forward to reading him.

    Roman

  4. Hi Roman

    As an example of a poem evoking the spirit of ‘carpe diem’, how about the opening to Rilke’s Book of Hours? I find it very galvanising. Here’s a translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows:

    The hour is striking so close above me,
    so clear and sharp,
    that all my senses ring with it.
    I feel now there is a power in me
    to grasp and give shape to my world.

    I know that nothing has ever been real
    without my beholding it.
    All becoming has needed me.
    My looking ripens things
    and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

    Rainer Maria Rilke
    from Book for the Hours of Prayer

  5. A beautiful Rilke poem, Jessica. Also from Rilke:

    ‘I am not saying that we should love death, but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.’

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