Sunday, 6 January 2008

Translated and Paraphrased Poems

The second chapter in The Portable Atheist is a section of verses or quatrains by a guy named Omar Khayyám. He lived about 1000 years after Lucretius, the guy who wrote the first chapter. If the book is meant to be chronological, which I think it vaguely is, then that is a pretty huge gap for your next historic source for an atheist. Even to call Khayyám an atheist might be a bit of stretch. Translators of his poems have assembled them in an order to fit their own needs. According to the translator of the version in The Portable Atheist, Richard Le Gallienne says:
These in the original manuscripts are subject to an arbitrary alphabetical arrangement which is no arrangement.
Le Gallienne also later comments on Khayyám's view of God:
In this my paraphrase accords more nearly with the Omar of the more literal
translators--for Omar is always ready to curse God with one cup and love Him
with the next
Wikiepida (the source of all democratic truth), when talking about translators of Khayyám and his religious views has:
Nicolas took the view that Khayyam himself clearly was a Sufi. Others have seen signs of mysticism, even atheism, or conversely devout and orthodox Islam. Fitzgerald gave the Rubaiyat a distinct fatalistic spin...
It sounds like the jury may still out as to Khayyám's beliefs.

Khayyám writes (or is translated and paraphrased to say) things like:
To all of us the thought of heaven is dear--
Why not be sure of it and make it here?
No doubt there is a heaven yonder too,
But 'tis so far away--and you are near.

Men talk of heaven,--there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell,--there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,--
O love, there is no other life--but here.

Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There. (Page 8)
I think he also didn't like Islam that much:
If I were God! this I!--a poor old man
Whose heaven is wine, whose hell is Ramadan;
Poor dizzy head within a reeling world, Poor trembling
hand--the steadfast heavens to span! (Not in the book)

The Koran! well, come put me to the test--
Lovely old book in hideous error drest--
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best. (Page 10)
The poems have a lot of spirit but no real argument for its reasons. I just as well may write:
There is a God in Heaven's sky
Who came down to earth from on high
He gave up his life for us and rose again
So that on Judgement day we won't die
In a poem I can just make all sorts of ascertains without any need for backing them up. I don't think it is a really a convincing tool to persuade someone.

You can read the translated and paraphrased collection of poems here (including the introduction by the translator).


  1. God is not imaginary and shouldn't be written about so poorly in your poetry.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    I agree with you on both accounts! I promise to you and to the world that I will not ever use my bad poetry to talk about God.