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Whilst the Cities Sleep: Quarantine Quatrains

It’s funny how forgotten, yet familiar books suddenly suggest themselves in lockdown! I have been re-reading a lovely old copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in Edward Fitzgerald’s famous verse translation, and taking comfort, pleasure and fresh insight from it in this isolation. I’ve also been re-entranced by its elegant form. Fitzgerald cast his translation into a series of little quatrains: four line stanzas, each chiming sonorously on a single rhyming sound. They start with a couplet, and then he allows himself a free unrhymed line to gather energy and momentum before ringing the quatrain to a close as the final line returns to the first rhyme sound with renewed emphasis, and satisfying finality.

So here, for example is the famous first verse:

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight: And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. by Edward Fitzgerald

Spurred on by this example, I have been composing some “Quarantine Quatrains” of my own, in a kind of leisured conversation with the original Rubaiyat, but also as something of a lockdown journal. Looking back on these, I see a progression or pattern through which many of us have been moving: I started with a sense of the unexpected opening out of time and apparent leisure:

Awake to what was once a busy day When you would rush and hurry on your way Snatch at your breakfast, start the grim commute But time and tide have turned another way… This morning’s light is brighter than it seems Your room is raftered with its golden beams The bowl of night was richly filled with sleep And dawn’s left hand is holding all your dreams

But soon, of course I found that Zoom came zooming in, and I had to negotiate the strange ambivalence of that medium: the way the closeness of familiar faces on the screen teases you with connection and at the same moment only emphasizes distance:

Alas that all the friends we ever knew Whose lives were fragrant and whose touch was true Can only meet us on some little screen Then zoom away with scarcely an adieu. We share with them the little that we know These galleries of ghosts set in a row They flicker on the screen of life awhile But some have left the meeting long ago. We used to stroll together on the green Who now divide the squares upon the screen, The faces of our friends, so far apart Tease us with tenderness that might have been

But when I retreated, zoomed out again, to my garden hut, I found myself bathed and soothed by birdsong:

Here in my garden hut, just on the brink Of making some new song of all I think, A sudden thrill and ripple of true song Makes mockery of my poor pen and ink. Beyond my hut a vivid glimpse of red: A bright-eyed robin by the garden bed Sings his mellifluous and liquid notes, That utter more than all I’ve ever said.

 Like many of us I was becoming aware of how widely nature is returning, of the natural “rewilding” that is taking place all around us. And here the original poem once more proved suggestive, if not prophetic, so I began one of my own quatrains with a couplet of Khayyam’s:

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep: But now in every corner of the world The wild things flourish whilst the cities sleep.

Such reflection led me, as it has so many others, to wonder whether this crisis might lead us to a chastened, and gentler way of being in the world:

Perhaps in all this crisis, all this pain, This reassessment of our loss and gain Nature rebukes our brief authority Yet offers us the chance to start again And this time with a new humility, With chastened awe, and mutual courtesy; To re-accept the unearned gift of life With gratitude, with joy and charity. Perhaps we’ll learn to live without so much To nurture and to cherish, not to clutch, And, if I’m spared, I’ll hold the years I’m given With gentler tenure and a lighter touch.


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