Omar Khayyam

Rubaiyat XII: A Book of Verses underneath the Bough by Omar Khayyam

Quatrain XII from Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, describes how “Wilderness” transforms into “Paradise” with love, poetry, and wine.

The best-known quatrain from Rubaiyat and one of the oft-quoted ones, Rubai XII is also known for its incredible first line, ‘A Book of Verses underneath the Bough.’ In the first edition of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam published in 1859, it was quatrain XI that read:

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.

In the subsequent editions, the quatrain underwent a number of important changes, including wordings, indentation, and punctuations. Finally, in the fourth edition (1879), Edward FitzGerald applied his last editorial stroke to this rubai or stanza XII, which reads:

 A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou

   Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

 Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!


Summary

Rubai XII by Omar Khayyam is a carpe diem poem describing how poetry coupled with the metaphorical “jug of wine” and “loaf of bread” can transform the seeming wilderness into a paradise.

Stanza XII of Rubaiyat, ‘A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,’ is about a romantic speaker addressing his beloved to seize the moment. He refers to three important elements that help humans to elevate from the mundane to the ethereal plane. These are a book of poetry, a jug filled with wine, and a loaf of bread. That’s all they require to enjoy the moment. While enjoying his time with his beloved, he can hear how the wilderness beside him sings a melody long unheard. The song coupled with poetry, wine, and love, changes the scene for the speaker. His surroundings transform into a paradise on earth.

Detailed Analysis

Version One (1st edition – 1859)

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.

In the first edition of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859), the quatrain was numbered eleven (XI). It differed significantly from the last modified version, numbered twelve (XII). The first line of Rubai XI begins with a direct reference to the “Loaf of Bread,” a symbolic reference to the resources that sustain the body. It is present beneath the bough. Alongside that, there is a “Flask of Wine” and a “Book of Verse.” The speaker’s beloved sits by his side. In the third, fourth, and fifth editions, the phrase “Book of Verse” was placed in the first line and the words “Here with” were removed.

The following lines remained more or less the same, except in the first version, there is “And” at the beginning of line four. Besides, the last line was only a statement, unable to express the speaker’s emotions. Therefore, this version of the quatrain is somehow unable to reflect the speaker’s state of mind. It only provides an overall picture of the surrounding where the speaker and his beloved are drinking wine, eating bread, and reading poetry.

Version Two (2nd edition – 1868)

Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

In the second edition, FitzGerald numbered the quatrain, XII. This version contains some minor but important modifications. For instance, the “Loaf of Bread” became “a little Bread.” With these wordings, the first line hints at the scarcity of essential resources. The space is filled by the elements in the second line. In contrast, the first version gives similar importance to each item. Everything is there in sufficient amounts.

FitzGerald removed the indentation in the third line. The absence of an indentation removes the special focus at this line. Therefore, it has to be read with the same emphasis given to the other lines. Finally, the last line became a rhetorical exclamation. This line remained unchanged in the subsequent editions.

Final Version (4th edition – 1879)

 A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou

   Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

 Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

The final version of Rubai XII was published in the fourth edition of Rubaiyat (1879). This version was published without any modifications in the posthumous edition of 1889. In this way, the quatrain took its final shape after a series of inclusions and deletions.

The final version and the most famous version of quatrain XII begins with a reference to the important element, “A Book of Verses.” The mention of the book underneath a bough is important. Poetry, according to Romantics, is nothing other than human emotions collected in tranquillity induced by nature. Therefore, one has to be close to nature in order to appreciate poetry, especially that of the ancient period.

Alongside that, the speaker has a metaphorical “Jug of Wine” and a “Loaf of Bread.” The “Wine” and “Bread” are used to indicate the elements that sustain the body. It is important to note the use of “Jug” in place of a “Flask.” The term was first changed in the third edition (1872). FitzGerald uses the term “Flask” in place of “Jug” as the former was used in Khayyam’s time.

The term “Thou,” the archaic term for “you,” is placed right after the long em dash. FitzGerald uses the dash for the sake of emphasizing the term. It could be a reference to both the speaker’s beloved and the God. It could also be a reference to the soul. When the speaker is with his love, enjoying the moment by reading poetry and drinking wine, he hears a song coming from the “Wilderness.” This song or simply the sound is a metaphorical reference to nature’s eternal music. In this way, the “Wilderness” becomes “Paradise” far enough (“enow”).

Structure and Form

The Persian word “rubai” means a four-line stanza with a set rhyme scheme. It is the same term for a quatrain. A rubai (plural rubaiyat) has the AABA or AAAA rhyme scheme. Through his translation of Khayyam’s Persian rubaiyat, FitzGerald popularized the AABA rhyming pattern in English poetry. For instance, quatrain XII contains the AABA rhyme scheme. The first, second and fourth lines end with a similar rhyme. While the last word of the third line does not conform to the pattern. Besides, the overall quatrain is written in iambic pentameter.

Literary Devices

In this quatrain, the following literary devices are present:

  • Consonance: It occurs in the first line. The terms “Book” and “Bough” begin with the same consonant sound. It is also repeated in “Bread” in the second line.
  • Anaphora: The first two lines of the quatrain begins with the same word. It is a use of anaphora.
  • Personification: The first letter of “Wilderness” starts with a capital “W.” It means the term is personified. The abstract idea of “Wilderness” appears to be a living being.
  • Rhetorical Exclamation: In the last line, the speaker expresses his excitement at the transformation of the “Wilderness” into “Paradise.” This line reflects the speaker’s pleasure and a sense of fulfilment.


Historical Context

English poet Edward FitzGerald received a set of Persian quatrains by Omar Khayyam in March 1857. It was sent to him by Edward Byles Cowell, a translator of Persian poetry, as he was one of the best Oriental scholars at that time. He published the first edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on 15 January 1859 anonymously. It was not popular at that time. Later, in 1861, Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes popularized the translation and it came to the special attention of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. With the publication of the third edition in 1872 and the first American edition in 1878, Rubaiyat became extremely popular. Then onwards FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat has remained one of the influential English translations of Khayyam’s quatrains.

Read the poems of Edward FitzGerald.

FAQs

What does ‘A Book of Verses underneath the Bough’ mean?

Omar Khayyam’s verse XII is all about seizing the moment and being in the moment. The speaker of this piece describes how by connecting with their surroundings, they could create a paradise on earth. Therefore, his lover needs not to wait until death in order to be in paradise.

What does “Wilderness” mean in Rubai XII?

The “Wilderness” is a reference to nature. With reference to the quatrains related to Rubai XII, wilderness means an uncultivated land. According to the speaker, the barren lands nearby transform into the land of paradise if one has the eyes to see it.

What is the meaning of the line “Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough”?

This was the first line of the 1859 version of Rubai XII. Through this line, the speaker describes how he has everything that he needs to stay alive: bread, wine, poetry, and his beloved.

What is the meaning of Rubaiyat?

Rubaiyat is a Persian term that means quatrains. It is the plural of rubai which is a four-line stanza with a specific rhyme scheme. It is the same term for a quatrain.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that explore similar themes present in Khayyam’s ‘A Book of Verses underneath the Bough.’

You can also explore these incredible nature poems.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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