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Yet more on the puzzle about quatrain one – what does the ‘Stone’ signify?

March 13, 2013

1shr1086scfBack in October 2012, on this blog, Bob Forrest posed a question about the meaning and sources of the note to quatrain 1 of FitzGerald’s first edition, which suggests that “Flinging a Stone into the Cup was the Signal for ‘To Horse!’ in the Desert.”.  There were several responses to the post at the time, and, since then, an informal research group of Bob Forrest (using the John Rylands Library in Manchester), Garry Garrard (in the London Library), and ourselves (in the Cambridge University Library), have been following up various leads on the topic.  We posted an update on the subject in December 2012.  Here is a further report on the quest, which has led us into rather murky waters, and severely tested our combined linguistic skills.  Links to the two early posts are shown at the end of this note.

First, there needs to be a correction to the December post, specifically to item 4 which refers to ‘a publication by Iohannes Augustus Vullers in 1833, entitled Chrestomathia Schahnamiana’.   This reference was incorrect.  That title exists, but the volume we consulted was actually Vullers’ Lexicon Persico-Latinum which was published in two volumes in 1855 and 1864 respectively.  The information regarding the meaning of the word mohreh, which is as described in the earlier post, is contained in the second volume dated 1864.  

Vullers’ Lexicon refers to ‘throwing a stone into a cup as a signal for action’ as being an ancient Persian custom.  Among the sources he references is Borhani qatiu which we have identified in the following printed version:  Boorhani Qatiu, A Dictionary of the Persian Language explained in Persian … with an appendix … and Persian Notes, edited by Thomas Roebuck, Calcutta, at the Hindoostanee Press, 1818.  The entry for mohreh in this volume contains the Persian phrase ‘throwing a stone into a cup’ but the explanation for it (as far as we have deciphered it so far) describes the custom as being that ‘when the emperor travelled, a stone was thrown in a resonant metal cup on the back of an elephant, and the loud noise gave a signal of departure’. 

This explanation ties up with the similar mention of an elephant in E B Cowell’s annotation in his copy of Richardson’s Dictionary (see point 3 in the earlier post).  But we have not so far found any mention that clarifies Johnson’s reference to the stone in the cup as ‘a signal for mounting on horseback’ which is probably the source of FitzGerald’s use of the phrase ‘To Horse’ in his note to Quatrain 1 in the first edition.

So where are we now?  It is clear that there is some basis in the studies of old customs for the idea of a stone making a noise in a cup as being a sign for action, probably departure.  But we are far from having a definitive description of this practice.  The sources we have looked at would bear more detailed examination by someone with better skills in reading Persian and Latin text.  We hope there may be someone out there who might be willing to do this?  Meanwhile we can at least say that FitzGerald has some basis for his note, even if his ‘To Horse’ is, typically, a rather free interpretation of the custom in question

First post October 15 2012

Second post December 11 2012

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2013 4:36 pm

    Well done all! What splendid detective work. So very glad to have the opportunity to read your findings even though, as you say, they’re not conclusive. But you’ve surely established the lineage of Fitz’s use of the image. Thank you.

  2. March 14, 2013 5:35 pm

    Many thanks for your kind comments, David. Wait for the next exciting instalment. We are now on the trail of ‘singing bowls’!

  3. Green Len permalink
    April 1, 2013 8:31 am

    Omar’s First Fling

    An interview with Omar Khayyam appearing in my recent book Rose Bay Rubaiyyat has been published in Omariana. Now, in response to questions concerning FitzGerald’s first stanza: Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night / Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight, I made further contact with himself, entering a short question and answer dialogue; he doesn’t give extended interviews.

    Specifically I questioned him:

    Some folk with a profound, enquiring bent
    Have questioned what you actually meant
    By that device in Fitz’s first quatrain
    Which scattered objects in the firmament.

    A goolie of such awesome aptitude
    Needs priming, with sufficient amplitude
    To put to flight a galaxy or two
    Of such inherent mass and magnitude.

    Would you be sort of willing to endorse
    That fling pertains to breaking camp – to horse,
    With apt poetic license to adopt
    And justify your guided missile’s course?

    Omar’s response was implicit:

    To tell the truth friend, I could not foretell
    A latter day enquiring clientele
    On such a minor ambivalent phrase
    Would scrutinize and ponderously dwell.

    We Persians of an antique arcane age
    Had no intent or reason to engage
    In esoteric verbal conundrums
    That one day would confound a cyber page.

    So bear with me, my earnest Western friends,
    The meaning of my metaphor depends
    On what you readers wish to introduce
    That motivates or justifies my ends.

  4. April 1, 2013 9:05 am

    A fair comment from the Master. Thank you, Len.


  1. A new website from a Rubaiyat enthusiast will enlighten all of us | Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat
  2. Exploring Khayyam: a website devoted to the understanding of the quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam | Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat

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