The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is the title that Edward FitzGerald gave to his translation of a selection of verses written by Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), a Persian poet and mathematician. A ruba’i is a two line stanza with two parts per line, thus the word rubaiyat, which translated means quatrains. There were actually five editions of the work published. The first, published in 1859, had 75 quatrains; the fifth, published in 1889, had 10l. One critic has commented on FitzGerald’s poem in the following way: “As a work of English literature FitzGerald's version is a high point of the 19th century and has been greatly influential. However, as a translation of Omar Khayyam's quatrains, it is not noted for its fidelity. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to any one of Khayyam's quatrains at all.” FitzGerald called his poem a "transmogrification." He went on to say, however, “Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.”
While this work is, as the critic claimed, a high point of the 19th century, FitzGerald, the poet, is not as well known as other poets of his time. He was born March 31, 1809, and died June 14, 1883. FitzGerald was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and while there met William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair and other novels. Their friendship lasted until his death. FitzGerald graduated in 1830 and assumed the role of a secluded “country gentleman” for the rest of his life. He did, however, have and corresponded with many friends, including Thomas Carlyle and Alfred Tennyson, the poet laureate at the time. He was also able to learn the Persian language through his friendship with the Orientalist Edward Cowell. He also had what has been described as a brief and disastrous marriage. The last years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. In June 1863 he bought a yacht, which he named "The Scandal." He died in 1883. At one point he described his life as one of "an idle fellow, but one whose friendships were more like loves."
While there is general agreement as to the beauty of FitzGerald’s translation, the criticism of his work revolves around two matters: Omar’s beliefs and FitzGerald’s faithfulness to the spirit of the original poem. One school believes that Omar was a Sufi mystic and any translation should reflect his mysticism. Another school, as reflected in FitzGerald’s translation, believes that Omar was more of an Epicurean. One critic, Arthur J. Arberry, agrees with FitzGerald that Omar was not a mystic, but he goes on to state that FitzGerald did not fully convey or fully apprehend Omar’s philosophical beliefs, which he calls “rationalist pessimism.” In regard to the second point, FitzGerald’s faithfulness to the spirit of the original poem, other critics have insisted that FitzGerald’s translation accurately “retains the local color” of Omar’s poem. Another school of criticism states that in his translation FitzGerald reflects both his own Victorian beliefs and modern ideas. Some critics have suggested that FitzGerald had some influence on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Joanna Richardson, a FitzGerald scholar, has written; “He belongs to, and stands apart from, his age.”
The fact is that the verses in FitzGerald’s translation reflect both pessimism and Epicureanism. One can find both approaches in the various verses. Here, for instance, are some examples of what can be seen as
favoring the latter, that one should enjoy sensual pleasures.
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.”
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and –sans End!
Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit
Of This and That endeavor and dispute;
Better be jocund with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
And perhaps the most famous one:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
The “rationalist pessimistic” side is perhaps best seen in verses 82—90, which reveal the FitzGerald’s view of “He that with his hand” has made the vessels here on earth.
As under cover of departing Day
Slunk hunger-stricken Ramazan away,
Once more within the Potter’s alone
I stood , surrounded by the Shapes of Clay –
Shapes of all Sorts and Sizes, great and small
That stood along the floor and by the wall;
And some loquacious Vessels were; and some
Listened perhaps, but never talked at all.
Said one among them – “Surely not in vain
My substance of the common Earth was ta’en
And to the Figure molded, to be broke,
Or trampled back to Earth again.”
Then said a Second – “Ne’er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in joy;
And He that which the Vessel made
Will surely not in Wrath destroy.”
After a momentary silence spake
Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
What! did the Hand, then, of the Potter shake”?
Whereat someone of the loquacious Lot –
I think a Sufi pipkin –waxing hot –
“All this of Pot and Potter – Tell me then,
Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”
“Why,” said another, “Some there are who tell
Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell
The luckless Pots he marred in making –Pish!
He’s a Good Fellow, and “twill all be well.”
“Well,” murmured one, “Let whoso make or buy,
My Clay with long Oblivion is gone dry;
But fill me with the old familiar Juice,
Methinks I might recover by and by.”
So while the Vessels one by one were speaking
The little Moon looked in that all were seeking,
And then they jogged each other, “Brother! Brother!
Now for the Porter’s shoulder-knot a-creaking!”
There is no doubt that there will always be a lack of agreement as to the “faithfulness” of FitzGerald’s translation, but there is also no doubt as to its cleverness and, yes, brilliance. One critic has perhaps best expressed one’s reaction to the poem; “It is a reminder that to be popular, especially among young readers, poetry does not have to offer optimistic edification.”
Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (City University of New York). His major
interests are 19th-cetury literature and drama. He has published and lectured
widely on both scholarly and popular subjects and is currently one of the editors
of Dickens Studies Annual . He has published many articles on various subjects in
The World & I over the past years.