When my turn came in the British Literature class, it was my first time to stand in front of students and teach a poetry lesson. Back then ditto machines were used, and Mr. Hines gave me a "master" on which I could write four Edward Fitzgerald quatrains. That day in class I distributed copies that had a slightly purple hue. This strikes me as ironic now, given that my first quatrain was a bad choice for a teen audience.
"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."
This awakened Cory, whose mother was a popular and respected history teacher at FUHS.
"Really? Enow?" he laughed. "And what's with the capitals?"
I had no answer that day to Cory's question, though "poetic license" might have been clever. I did decide after reading aloud this quatrain, not to pass around the book with Edmund J. Sullivan's pen and ink drawings in Fitzgerald's 1859 Rubάiyάt, with nudes cavorting on six pages. I did identify Fitzgerald's use of iambic-pentameter, and his rhyme scheme of aaxa. There were exceptions to this pattern, which I did not mention. I would not have used the word, melancholic, to describe Fitzgerald's translation. But later in college as a literature major, I studied the Elizabethan world view, with its four humours for human beings: choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine. But a perceptive teacher like Mr. Hines must have seen me as melancholic in the lingering sanguine 1950s. This teacher was mysterious and probably identified with Fitzgerald who claimed, "the thoughtful soul to solitude retires."
That day in class I related what I knew about Omar Khayyάm, who lived from 1048 to 1131 (the dates vary). I would have explained that a rubάiyάt was a foursome of rubάi; that Omar was a famous astronomer and mathematician; that after he lost political favor, he embraced an epicurean existence and found consolation in wine and fleeting Time. Over seven centuries later, this Persian poet spoke to Edward Fitzgerald. Then in the early 1960s, his translated verse spoke to me: "when many knots unraveled by the Road; but not the Knot of Human Death and Fate." And when, "there was a Door by which I found no Key; there was a Veil past which I could not see."
If an adolescent wanted not to be mocked, a sure way to achieve ridicule was to be serious and melancholic in a sanguine, secretive age like the Fifties and early Sixties. If my lesson bored and befuddled my classmates, Mr. Hines gave me an A for taking on Edward Fitzgerald.
I have forgotten two of the quatrains on the purple-tinged page I gave to classmates. The last one I recited from memory. I still recite it today. These four lines form the basis of a chapter in Beyond the Wall, my book from 2000 about Venezuelan legal and penal injustice, still relevant today, and soon to be re-printed.
"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ
Moves on. Nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."
Next time: Adolescent Salvation in J.D. Salinger