“Better a Live Sparrow”

In my ongoing (and lately intermittent) attempts to transform classic English-language poetry into visual narrative via the tarot cards, one work stands out as the “Holy Grail” of my lofty aspiration: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It is one I have been reluctant to tackle because it is so heavily laden with metaphysical imagery (the pervasive  mention of “wine” I consider to be largely metaphorical) that any “house of cards” built on its majestic foundation is almost certain to collapse under its own weight. (Although there are 101 quatrains in the later editions but only 78 tarot cards, necessitating either some “mashing together” of the sequence or the use of more than one deck, I decided after some research to stay with the original 75-quatrain version; there may still be some repetition of ideas requiring a second deck.) Edward FitzGerald, its creator, who acknowledged that it isn’t a literal translation of Khayyam but more of a “transmogrification,” produced a compelling lyrical masterpiece that begs to be given the treatment I have already accorded the works of Coleridge, Swinburn, Eliot, MacLeish, Carroll, Poe and others. FitzGerald implied that his goal was to breathe life into the often formal stiffness of his source material:

“Many quatrains are mashed together: and something lost, I doubt, of Omar’s simplicity, which is so much a virtue in him. I suppose very few People have ever taken such Pains in Translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.”

Along with Coleridge’s equally daunting Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Rubaiyat offers singularly fertile ground for “plowing in” of the tarot’s esoteric profundity. I’m not going to try swallowing it whole at one sitting, but will instead bite off manageable chunks that will fit comfortable into my customary three-or-four-paragraph format. The Thoth deck, with its vaguely “Eastern” flair rooted in Crowley’s Cairo-penned Book of the Law and his personal take on the I Ching, seems like the perfect tool for my purpose. (The images from the RWS minor cards may also be relevant to the text in some cases.) At the end, and after the inevitable edits inspired by the discovery of more convincing card-to-text alignments, I will produce a panoramic photograph of the entire “story.” Here is the first logically coherent set of quatrains, accompanied by the cards I have selected to illuminate them:

I.
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 Sultán’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

The Sun

II.
Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky,
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”

Ace of Cups, “Root of the Power of Water”

III.
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted—“Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.”

6 of Cups reversed, “Pleasure” (reversal emphasizes impatience at the momentary denial of gratification, and also the transient nature of the Six)

IV.
Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough
Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

Ace of Swords reversed, implying contemplation (particularly the “white hand” and inverted, downward/inward-pointing sword of the RWS card)

V.
Irám indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshýd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup where no one knows:
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.

The Empress with her fruitful bounty, and the 9 of Disks, “Gain” (Venus in Virgo), implying value received from the foregoing retirement (also the RWS 9 of Pentacles with its private garden)

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