The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam presents an interesting
challenge to any reader trying to sort through its heavy symbolism and not-
so-obvious theme. Not only does the poem provide us with a compelling
surface story, but a second look at the text can reveal a rich collection
of seperate meanings hidden in the poem's objective descriptions and
sprawling narrative-which in the space of a few pages includes such
disparate characters as the Moon, God, the Snake (and his traditional
Christian neighborhood, Paradise), the "Balm of Life", not to mention
nearly every animal and sexual symbol the human mind can come up with.
Obviously, on one level, the poem can present itself in a
fairly straightforward manner in the vein of CARPE DIEM. In the third
stanza, the author writes, "'Open then the Door!/ You know how little while
we have to stay,/ And, once departed, may return no more." There's several
refrains to this throughout the poem, first in the seventh stanza: "Come,
fill the cup. . ./ The Bird of Time has but a little way/ To flutter-and
the bird is on the Wing." The entire ninth stanza describes the summer
month "that brings the Rose" taking "Jamshyd and Kaikobad away", and so
forth and so on ad nauseum. Again, in the fifty-third stanza: "You gaze
To-Day, while You are You-how then/ Tomorrow, You when shall be You no
more?" The poet seems to be in an incredible hurry to get this life going
before some cosmic deadline comes due, and more than willing to encourage
any of the laiety he encounters in the course of the poem to do the same.
Another recurring motif throughout the poem is the time-
honored act of downing a few drinks. It appears that either "Wine", the
"Cup" or "Bowl", and the "Grape" touch every stanza in the poem; the
narrator seems to be an alcoholic. In the fifty-sixth stanza he dismisses
everything so he can get drunk, having divorced Reason and married the
Daughter of the Vine in the previous stanza: "Of all that one should care
to fathom, I/ Was never deep in anything but-Wine." Later the narrator
compares the Grape to an angel. It's clear this person has something of an
But all of these seemingly transparent references to
drinking beg for a deeper analysis. Writing a really great poem about
blowing off the next day to get trashed does not get you into the literary
canon. Of particular interest is the symbol of the "Cup" or "Bowl" (or
even "Pot" at one point in the poem), and the "Wine" that the narrator
seems to be drawing out of it on every occasion.
The "Cup", in Western society, is nearly always synonymous
with some sort of prize or contest. Besides the Cup being semi-obviously
equated with the vagina and therefore a kind of sexual conquest in our
society's male-driven history, there is also the legend of the Holy Grail-
The Cup of Life, which grants eternal life to anybody lucky enough to find
it. There is a parable in the Bible about a woman who, having been married
several times out of either lust or financial necessity, goes to the well
for water and finds Jesus there, dispensing wisdom in his usual manner. As
she gets water, Jesus tells her, "Whosoever drinks from that well will
thirst again." Whether or not this convinces the woman to renounce worldly
pleasures and become a Christian is never made clear.
So what then is this "Cup" that the poet makes twenty-five
references to throughout the poem (including "Vessel","Urn","Bowl", and
"Glass")? It's fairly easy to argue that the cup is a symbol for life and
the act of living. It's also a curse-no cup is bottomless, so it follows
a) you can't enjoy the wine unless you drink it, but
b) the ...
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