Sunday, 24 May 2020


Earlier this week (18th of May) I put an extract from one of my favourite poems up on facebook.
     To celebrate the birthday of the Arabic philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, Omar Khayyam, I quoted from his epic poem, The Rubaiyat.
Come with old Khayyam ....
With me along some strip of herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown.
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse - and thou
Beside me, singing in the wilderness -
And wilderness is paradise enow.

The English language is rich and diverse and often uses old fashioned or obscure versions of words, particularly in poetry. And right at the end of this quote we have the word 'enow'.
     It is used here to help the lines scan, and to rhyme with the words 'bough' and 'thou', but we don't tend to worry about its meaning, as you can ignore it completely and still understand the meaning of this verse: 'It is lovely to go for a picnic in the country, just you and me.'
     If you bear in mind that poetry is a condensed form of writing, one which attempts to convey a meaning, or feeling, or create an atmosphere in a few words and lines, then every word chosen has to count, has to be of special value to justify its inclusion.
     The prime example of this is the Japanese poetic form, the Haiku.
     Haikus are composed to set rhythms of syllables and must also include a reference to the time of year

     The Rubaiyat is a series of quattraines, these are verses of four lines. Some of these verses are independent thoughts, others are series within the overall poem which are used to express a philosophical idea, so every word chosen has to fulfil several functions: It has to tell a story; it has to help the rhythm and the rhyme of the poem; it also has to help express the philosophy behind the words.
     So what does 'enow' actually mean?
     English words are a devil for having several meanings, and also for those meanings to change over the centuries, and 'enow' is one of those. It can mean 'enough', or be a contraction of the words 'even now' which in turn can mean 'at this moment' or even 'immediately'.
     Issobel Gowdie, the Scottish Witch, used the phrase 'even now' in her shape changing chants to change from woman to hare and back again. She says:
I am in an hares likeness just now,
But I will be in a woman's likeness even now.
     To us modern English users, the word 'now' simply means 'now', but to Issobel Gowdie there was a difference between 'now' and 'even now'.
     'Now' implies the continuing present, the time that we are currently occupying, but 'even now' changes that present to something else, a new reality, immediately.
     So what Issobel means is:
'I am currently in the shape of a hare,
but I choose to immediately change to the shape of a woman.'
       So which meaning of 'enow' do we find at the end of this Rubaiyat quattrain?
      Khayyam and his translator, Edward Fitzgerald, are creating a scene, a picture, with these lines of poetry.
     There have been many different translations of the words of Omar Khayyam over the years - indeed Fitzgerald himself made at least five versions - but the one I love best and have quoted from, is his first version. Bear in mind that this was not only Fitzgerald's first attempt at translating these quattrains, this was the first time ever that these Persian's thoughts had been translated into English.
     Because Fitzgerald chose to translate the quattrains into a poetic and rhyming form, this translation has been criticised as not being an accurate rendition from the Arabic.
      But this is not a dry work of scholarship, this is a celebration of the wit and wisdom of Khayyam. The words which Fitzgerald chose, encapsulate the spirit as well as the inner meaning of the original words.
      He has used the word 'enow' simply because of all its meanings and all it implies. Khayyam is saying that all he needs to recreate paradise on earth in contained within this verse. That this is enough paradise for him. But also that if these conditions are fulfilled, then, for him, Paradise immediately comes into being, for a fleeting instant Paradise is realised here on earth.
     He does not need the dry arguments of the religious ascetic to get him nearer to heaven, all he needs are simple pleasures, food, drink, peace and a beautiful companion.

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