THE MOVING FINGER WRITES
columnar day, I
have promised from time to time, I shall
review this or that book whose author has been kind enough to send his work
I have been grievously derelict in honoring such pledges,
finding that one tractile tract a week, however lengthy,
is scarcely enough to keep up with current happenings, and allows little
time for indulging in the luxury either of
commentary, critique, or philosophic observation.
to the problem are my frequent sojourns hither and
yon: e.g.., Houston just last week. Cursed as I am by this
itch for scribbling—cacoethes scribendi— I can't relax and
simply enjoy new vistas like sensible folk; I must write my
experiences—copiously. Witness the recent transcontinental
panegyric with stopovers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and
I have half a year's supply of these diaritic disquisitions
on hand at all times, so far ahead of schedule am I;
some have been yellowing in my file for years, sidetracked, since
they have no particular time element, by more topical pieces.
The temptation to pontificate on current subjects that
happen to hit the news is too compelling to resist, especially
if there has been an incident in my reasonably active life that permits
personalization. This is no mitigation, I know, for the iniquity of
procrastination, and it is offered not
by way of justification but of explanation.
among the relatively recent tomes I've wanted to discuss
with you were the latest volume by my friend Andrew
Salter, the eminent Park Avenue psychologist who threw
down the gauntlet to Freudians with his bluntly labeled
Case Against Psychoanalysis; Ralph Wescott's illuminating
Walt Whitman in Camden, and Martha deSanto's brave
adventure vis-a-vis old Khayyam in her unique The Rubaiyat and The Wine of Cana.
typical perversity, I think I shall tackle this last first,
if for no other reason than the opportunity it gives me to
read again the Alcaic prosody with which Edward Fitz-Gerald
a century ago adorned the iconoclastic observations of
the llth century paynim, Ghiyathuddin Abulfath Omar bin
Ibrahim al-Khayyami of Naishapur, more concisely, Omar,
son of Abraham the tent maker.
what boldness brash and rash and wonderful has this
earnest disciple of religiosity from Merchantville pitted her
well-intentioned stanzas against the magic melody of Omar-FitzGerald!
is not my purpose to essay a judgement as between the respective and divergent beliefs of Mrs. deSanto and Khayyam,
to give him his Takhallus poetical name. The outspoken latitudinarian,
like Plato's restive and rebellious horse of the human soul, was not
above flinging off all good and wholesome counsel and breaking fairly loose.
made no secret of his affection for Dionysius who, in
the words of Milton, "first from the purple grape crushed the
sweet poison of misused wine." Like Epicurus, he sought to
release himself from the prison of affairs and politics; he embraced
the Athenian's hedonism, agreeing with him that "we
are born once and cannot be born twice, but for all time
must be no more. But you, who are not master of tomorrow, postpone your
happiness; life is wasted in procrastination
and each one of us dies without allowing himself leisure."
tetrastichs, too, echo the materialistic paganism of the Roman Lucretius,
who complained that mankind ever toils
vainly and to no purpose and wastes life in groundless cares:
"Men wear themselves out and sweat drops of blood as
they struggle on along the strait road of ambition."
philosophy of carpe diem shocks Mrs. deSanto, as it has
shocked generations before her—"that large infidel" was Tennyson's
phrase for the Persian Voltaire—and, deeply religious herself, she has been stirred into audacious action, not
with such irony as Carlyle used in labeling pantheism "pot-theism,"
but in a sincere attempt to transpose Khayyam's
quatrains into a hymnal of faith.
of the side you choose between the Eccle-siastes
and Democritus, you must admire the courage of one who wades determinedly
and untimorously into the river of flowing
gold that is the Rubaiyat. Sensuous and satirical as is his Epicurean eclogue in a Persian garden, lightly twitting
alike the reader and the deity, disdaining moralistic agonizing
and ecstatic lamentations, Omar sang his sybaritic song with ear-caressing
cadence: "O danad O danad O danad O,"
breaking off like a wood-pigeon's tremolo.
sternly Hebraic admonition "vanity, vanity, all is vanity"
he answered in light-hearted Grecian "Eat, drink and be
merry, for tomorrow we die."
hope men set their hearts upon," he scoffed, "turns ashes,
or vanishes like snow ....
We are shadows in a phantom
caravan; hurry, before we reach the Nothing from which we
set out .... Make the most of the moment; too soon everything
descends into the dust....
Paradise is a far promise; fame
is a food for dead men—take the living today."
the 19th century English squire, who discovered his long
discarded and contemporaneously discredited works, who
polished and pumiced them into the literary gems that fascinated
the pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti and thus lifted them from obscurity, wasn't at all sure he shared his
inspiration's atomistic libertarianism, his propensity for exalting
aesthetic pleasures above all else.
failed, however mistakenly, of finding any Providence
but Destiny," FitzGerald says, "and any world but this,
he set about making the most of it, preferring rather to soothe
the Soul through the Senses into acquiescence with things as he saw them,
than to perplex it with vain disquietude
after what they might be."
these two, separated by seven centuries, half a world
and linguistic barriers, yet contrived to collaborate in the
weaving of a mosaic so beautifully wrought as to enchant the
sentiency, with no necessity at all for subscribing to the philosophy, just
as one appreciates Bizet's stirring music for "Carmen"
with no implication of condonation for her wantonness.
comparison Mrs. deSanto has used FitzGerald's
original interpretation. This is the one that begins:
for morning in the bowl of night
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight:
lo! the hunter of the East has caught
The sultan's turret
in a noose of light.
when dawn's left hand was in the sky
I heard a voice
within the tavern cry,
my little ones, and fill the cup
liquor in its cup be dry."
editions revised this brilliant beginning considerably,
although not, in my opinion, for the better. What do
For the sun, who scatter'd into flight
The stars before him from the field of night,
night along with them from heav'n, and strikes
The sultan's turret with a shaft of light.
Before the phantom of false morning died,
Methought a voice within the
all the temple is prepared within,
nods the drowsy worshiper outside?"
ruba-i were not so completely rewritten. Witness the
justly famed 7th, for example:
fill the cup, and in the fire of spring
The winter garment of repentance fling:
The bird of time has but a little
To fly—and lo! the bird is on the wing.
last line becomes To flutter—and the bird is on the wing.
The even more
with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and thou
Beside me singing in the
And wilderness is paradise enow
in the so-called compressing and sharpening process:
book of verses underneath the bough,
A jug of wine, a
loaf of bread—and thou
me singing in the wilderness—
Oh, wilderness were paradise enow!
13th of the revision:
for the glories of this world; and some
Sigh for the prophet's paradise to come;
take the cash, and let the credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum!
was interpreted by FitzGerald to read:
sweet is mortal sovranty!"—
think some: Others—"How
blest the paradise to come!"
take the cash in hand and waive the rest;
Oh, the brave music
of a distant drum!
are these two tetrastichs of magnificent despair:
worldly hope men set their hearts upon
Turns ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
snow upon the desert's dusty face
Lighting a little hour or two—is gone.
those who husbanded the golden grain,
And those who flung it to the winds like rain,
Alike to no such aureate earth and
As, buried once, men want dug up again
that they are reversed in the revisions. The
in this batter'd caravanserai
Whose doorways are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his
Abode his hour or two,, and went his way
virtually unchanged. Doorways become portals; his hour or
two now is his
destined hour. Even less changed is:
sometimes think that never blows so red
The rose as where
some buried Caesar bled;
every hyacinth the garden wears
Dropt in its lap from some once lovely head
pronominal becoming her lap. Retained intact, happily, was
my beloved, fill the cup that clears
Today of past regrets and future fears-
tomorrow I may be
yesterday's sev'n thousand years.
make the most of ivhat we yet may spend,
Before we too into
the dust descend;
is dust, and under dust, we lie,
Sans zuine, sans song, sans singer and—sans end!
changed only in the third line, thusly: Dust into dust, and
under dust to lie.
all the saints and sages who discuss'd Of
the two worlds so learnedly are thrust
Like foolish prophets
forth; their words to scorn Are
scatter'd, and their mouths are stopt with dust
made the second line Of the two worlds so wisely-they
favorite of all:
moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all
thy piety nor wit
lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it
the transposition merely has the substitution your for the archaic
but moving thy.
final revision, with 101 stanzas compared to the
original 75, contains some of the most provocative, albeit beautiful
of the lyrical lines, as though the interpreter hesitated
before subjecting them to Victorian Britain's mores. Finally
he seemed emboldened to go full way; thus:
come with old Khayyam, and leave the wise
To talk; one thing
is certain, that life flies;
One thing is certain, and the rest is
The flower that once has blown forever dies.
for these first two lines in the revision are these:
threats of hell and hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain—this life flies.
in the very last stanza did Mrs. deSanto forsake the original for the
revision, sacrificing Thyself with shining foot in
the first line of the Tamam:
when like her, oh Saki, you shall pass
Among the guests
star-scatter'd on the grass,
in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One—turn down an empty glass!
our lady of Merchantville essayed a formidable task in
thus crossing rhymes with the Iranian. Skeptic, libertine that
he was, he could weave words into a magic spell:
wine of life keeps oozing drop by drop, T
he leaves of life keep falling one by one.
Each morn a thousand roses brings, you
Yes, but where
leaves the rose of yesterday?
for those who for today prepare,
And those that after some tomorrow stare,
A muezzin from the tower of darkness
"Fools! your reward is neither here nor there."
was the door to which I found no key;
There was the veil through which I might not see.
Some little talk awhile of me and
then no more of thee and me.
no more with human or divine,
to the winds resign,
lose your fingers in the tresses of
The cypress-slender minister of wine.
if the wine you drink, the lip you press,
End in what all begins and ends in—yes;
then you are today what yesterday
You were—tomorrow you shall not be less.
not your hour, nor in the vain pursuit
Of this and that endeavor and dispute;
be jocund with the fruitful grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, fruit.
know, my friends, with what a brave carouse
I made a second
marriage in my house;
old barren reason from my bed,
And took the daughter of the vine to spouse.
lately, by the tavern door agape,
Came shining through the dusk an angel shape
a vessel on his shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and 'twas—the grape!
must abjure the balm of life, I must,
Scared by some
after-reckoning ta'en on trust,
Or lured with hope of some diviner
To fill the cup—when crumbled into dust!
sent my soul through the invisible,
Some letter of that
after-life to spell:
by and by my soul return'd to me,
And answer'd "I myself am heav'n and hell."
that inverted bowl they call the sky,
coop'd we live and die,
not your hands to it for help—for it
As impotently moves
as you and I.
much as wine has play'd the infidel,
And robb'd me of my robe of honor—well,
I wonder often what the vintners
One half so precious as the stuff they sell.
is of such stuff that Mrs. deSanto's epodic target is
made. The lover of lyrical beauty will find The Ru-baiyat
and The Wine of Cana a
bargain addition to his library,
since in one little tome he can get the tentmaker's
treasure trove of exquisite if testy tetrastichs and at the
same time satisfy his curiosity as to how a sincere Moralist
would answer them, verse by verse. Tamam Shud..