Omar Khayyam

I rose, and on the throne of Saturn sate,

But not the knot of human Death and Fate.            (7/1859)thThe 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.            (76/1868)


Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,

Whether the cup with sweet or bitter run,

The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,

The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.     (8/1868)


Ah, fill the Cup:- what boots it to repeat

How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:


Why fret about them if TO-DAY be sweet!             (37/1859)


How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit

Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful grape

Than sadden after none, or bitter, fruit.            (39/1859) 

As with most good poetry there is something going on beneath the surface. Here is another famous Sufi poet, Masnavi of Hafiz, also inviting drunkenness: 

Minstrel, bring close together the harp and drum.

With a sweet melody invite all of the lovers to come. 

Strike a path that the Sufi into ecstasy goes,

Union through drunkenness will soon end his woes.


The followers of the Prophet Mohammed were not the only ones to use symbolism and allegory in religious art in the middle ages. In the sublime poetic tradition of the Sufi, wine is spirit, drunkenness the intoxication of pure worship, lovers the worshippers. No doubt this double language had its uses in courtly love! 

Naturally the modern drinker is entitled to their own interpretation! As Omar himself says: 

Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by the same door as in I went.            (27/1859)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




Wake! For the Sun beyond yon Eastern height

Has chased the Session of the Stars from Night;


In allegorical terms there are great differences between the Morning and the Sun, and Night and Flight. Shaft and Noose may be sexual as well as spiritual imagery. It is an interesting exercise to try and pin down the meaning of such poems, and the psychology of their translators! 

Consider: what is the most accurate language for medicine: mathematics or poetics? Numbers or metaphors?

            Have you found clinical situations in which translation from one language, or type of language, to another has been difficult? Or even compromised clinical care? 

Ibn Sina 

Another Islamic physician-polymath of the time was Avicenna, properly called Ibn Sina. He wrote about 450 treatises, including a lengthy poem on the practice of medicine, and is one of the most famed figures in medical history. 

References and further reading 

Fitzgerald E (1859) (trans.) The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam 

Smith P (1986) The Book of the Winebringer: Masnavi of Hafiz    New Humanity Books   US National Library of Medicine Islamic Medical Manuscripts  

updated: 22/03/2010