Rubai

The rubai (plural rubaiyat) is a Persian verse form. Each rubai stanza is a quatrain, in which lines 1, 2 and 4 all rhyme. Here for example are some rubaiyat written at the time of the invasion of Iraq:

from Rubaiyat of Saddam Hussein
Conservatives thought Blair could not be caught,
But now they’re in full cry. It’s merry sport.
As his stock falls they gallop up the polls,
And all they have to do is pledge support! 

Saddam Hussein stands firm, staunch, iron-willed,
Manoeuvring adroitly, highly skilled
At playing hide-and-seek. He will survive
However many of his “folks” are killed.  

Each new report from arms inspector Blix
Reveals he’s failed to see through Saddam’s tricks. 
He’s found no nerve gases or atom bombs,
No weapons worse than sharply-pointed sticks.

The cupboard’s bare. Nix, Blix. The empty shelves
Stripped clean by mischievous Iraqi elves.
Those massively destructive weapons must
Be there. We know - we sold him them ourselves.

The rubai is a good form to use when you've got something to say; the constraints of the form are not severe enough to prevent you from saying it.

Complications (optional)

If you spend a lot of time in the company of pedants, you may prefer the spellings ruba'i and ruba'iyat. You may even be forced to put horizontal bars over some of the vowels. 

There is a variation known as interlocking rubaiyat in which the third line of each stanza rhymes with lines 1, 2 and 4 of the next. 

Traditionally in Persia each rubai was regarded as a poem in its own right. When a collection of them - a rubaiyat - was published, they were arranged in a fixed order viz. in alphabetical order of the last letter of the rhyme. This rule would be harder to apply in English (where rhyming words can have very different spellings), and doesn't seem to me to be a good rule anyway. I tried it with the 20 or so stanzas of my Saddam Hussein rubaiyat, and the result was nonsense. (By the way, if you're really interested, you should be able to find the whole thing - presented in a sensible order - elsewhere on the web.)

Notable rubaiyat

The only possible place to start is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - an extended meditation on the meaning of life which comes to the firm conclusion that we should eat, drink and be merry (but mainly drink). There is more than one version of this great poem. Much the best known is the verse translation by Edward Fitzgerald, which dates from the 19th century. A lot harder to find, but also worth a look, is a modern version by Frank Kuppner, entitled In a Persian Garden (in his book Everything is Strange).

Also recommended is the version by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs, published by Penguin. This is an unrhymed translation, intended to convey as accurately as possible the meaning of the original, and also (according to the translators) its "baldness". The introduction and appendices contain a lot of interesting  historical and cultural information (some of it summarised elsewhere on this page). The book is beautifully illustrated too. 

Apparently Ezra Pound wrote a rubai once.

Historical notes

Omar Khayyam lived in twelfth-century Persia, under Islamic law. The ideas in his Rubaiyat - not least his enthusiasm for wine - were heretical, and highly dangerous for anyone associated with them if they had come to the attention of the authorities. Rubaiyat were circulated anonymously, and probably memorised a lot more often than they were written down. There is plenty of scope for controversy about whether Omar Khayyam actually wrote all the rubaiyat attributed to him. He was a famous man in other fields - as an astronomer/astrologer, mathematician and philosopher - and the attributions only became common knowledge after his death, when they could do him no harm.

The rubai form is much more lax than traditional forms of Arabic and Persian poetry, which would use a single rhyme all the way through the poem, however long. 

We could perhaps regard the rubai as a kind of catchy subversive twelfth-century Persian samizdat. And Khayyam, whether he wrote all of "his" Rubaiyat or not, was an all-round good egg.

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© Bob Newman 2004, 2005. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 16/04/2005