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.

You can find Malcolm Guite’s books of poetry in the Rabbit Room Store.

Malcolm Guite is the Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge and author of various books on contemporary spirituality. In addition to this, he is a poet and singer-songwriter and fronts the Cambridge-based band Mystery Train. Visit www.malcolmguite.com where you can read Malcolm's blog, some of his poetry, or find out more about his music and media appearances.

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