Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám "The Moving Finger Writes"

Edward FitzGerald

"The Moving Finger Writes"

Context: Edward FitzGerald was a gentle, placid recluse of considerable intellectual powers; he had a small permanent income which enabled him to lead a quietly happy rural life and to do just as he pleased. Though he did visit London to enjoy music and the theater, he spent most of his time alone with his books and his garden. His marriage ended in a separation, but this apparently left no scars with him. His must have been a charming personality, if the whimsical intimacy of his letters is any indication; and he was something of a hedonist. In this and in his religious skepticism he was part of the growing movement of his age. At one point he took up the study of Persian and presently encountered the quatrains written by Omar Khayyám. These he translated–transmuted might be a better term–into a poem of great sensitivity and beauty: a poem better known today than any other of the Victorian era. In it two principal themes are interwoven; first, the idea that life is fleeting and must be enjoyed before the opportunity is lost; and second, the feeling of resentment against a Power that holds men responsible for a nature they cannot determine. FitzGerald, unsatisfied with the first version of his work, polished it again and again, carrying it to five editions. The last of these is considered the definitive one, but there is some question whether certain lines in the first are not bolder and more effective. The poem begins with the sunrise and the opening of the tavern. The poet ponders on the unknown purposes of destiny, and on the brevity of human life; the philosophers who had all the answers to the universe have been ignored by it and are dust; the poet and his love will soon be dust in their turn. To enjoy what one has, while one can, is the poet's solution. He considers the inexorable nature of destiny and man's helplessness in the face of it:

We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;
But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
. . .
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help–for It
As impotently moves as you or I.
. . .
YESTERDAY This Day's Madness did prepare;
TOMORROW'S Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.