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20 Mar 2021
updated 20 Mar 2021

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

At some now unidentifiable moment and location in the early or mid 1960's, in a retrospectively eerie re-run of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's experience a century earlier, my attention was somehow guided to a small, almost insignificant, red mock-leather pocket-edition of verse from a box of oddments outside a second-hand bookshop, whether in Chichester or Bloomsbury.

It was a reprint of the 1859 first edition of Edward FitzGerald's masterpiece, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The seductive rhythms of its quatrains, the vivid imagery of an exotic Middle Eastern culture (that even then was fast disappearing and now is either tearing itself apart or threatening to do so to the rest of us), the exquisite precision and economy of its text, and above all the pinpoint correspondence with my own outlook on life at that time – of a world devoid of meaning or purpose, that was progressing with a remorseless inevitability from the first morning of creation until the last dawn of reckoning, the last syllable of unrecorded time – there being of course no great Record Keeper...

My own pessimism as to Life, the Universe and Everything has evolved to a cautious optimism since that time, but my admiration, and indeed ardour, for the Rubaiyat has continued undiminished. The metaphysics it expresses are ascribed to Khayyam, a historical figure, a mathematician and astronomer of some repute, and can be consulted in the original Persian, but literal translations into English reveal them to be rather pedestrian. It was FitzGerald, especially in his first translation, who gave them wings that take them into the eternal empyrean of English literature.

Khayyam would have received short shrift from most quarters of Islam today – his atheism, or at least agnosticism, his fondness for wine and meat, and his partiality to nubile females unaccompanied by their fathers or brothers. FitzGerald himself was seriously agnostic, an abstainer from wine and indeed anything stronger than water, a vegetarian or even fructarian, and a closet homosexual (as were so many in those intolerant times).

But great works of art, music and literature can transcend the shortcomings or idiosyncrasies of their creators – who are merely conduits for something transmitted from Elsewhere – and we the appreciators of their creations don't have to agree or sympathise in the slightest degree with their politics, religion or sexuality (Mozart's (alleged) Leck mich im Arsch comes readily to mind – even if he didn't write it, he could have readily done so).

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Turning now to the creative nitty gritty, how did eleventh/twelfth century Omar Khayyam, a Persian polymath, make contact with the nineteenth century poet Edward FitzGerald, an Anglo-Irishman?

It all seems to have started with the visit of a 15-year-old boy's visit to an East Anglian public library and his discovery there of a moth-eaten primer of Persian grammar, from which he became self-taught in classical Persian, and ultimately the first University of Cambridge Professor of Sanskrit. In 1844, at the still tender age of 18, however, Edward Byles Cowell (23 Jan 1826 – 9 Feb 1903) was introduced to the 35-year-old Oxford graduate and poetical recluse Edward Fitzgerald (31 Mar 1809 – 14 Jun 1883). Though their relationship was impeccably respectable, there now seems little doubt that Fitzgerald was emotionally attracted to the young prodigy, who tutored him successively in Spanish, Persian (from 1852 onwards) and Classical Greek. FitzGerald would subsequently publish in all three languages, but it is of course his inspired remoulding of a disparate set of quatrains attributed to the eleventh century Omar Khayyam (1048–1131) that would bring him fame.

Yes, you may say, but how had these quatrains (and there were a lot of them, hundreds in fact, many of dubious provenance), come to his attention in the first place?

To quote from Encyclopedia Iranica

"... In 1852 he published Polonius: A Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances, an anthology of aphorisms, some original but most culled from his very wide reading. This interest in aphorism, in concisely epigrammatic and memorable language that felicitously illustrates a general maxim, was one of the major reasons for FitzGerald's later receptiveness to Khayyam's poetry"

"... In 1856 Cowell left to take up an academic post in India; his parting present to FitzGerald was a copy he had made of a manuscript, in the Bodleian Library Oxford, of quatrains by Omar Khayyam. From Calcutta he sent FitzGerald a copy of a second manuscript. FitzGerald began to read and translate from the poems, reporting to Cowell on his progress in frequent letters, and asking many questions concerning scansion, possible errors in the texts, syntactical difficulties and so forth. The translation was clearly his way of being close to his absent friend and mentor (see for example the opening of his letter of Feb 1857)."

"... FitzGerald fundamentally changes the formal status of Khayyam's poems; these are discrete entities in Persian, but FitzGerald strings them into a continuous narrative. As he wrote to Cowell, "I see how a very pretty Eclogue might be tesselated out of his scattered Quatrains"; FitzGerald's quatrains take the reader through the day of a quietist skeptic whose solace for the sorrows of the world is the carpe diem pleasures of drinking and like-minded companionship. Inserted into this narrative is the Episode of the Pots in which pots brood on the inscrutability and apparent injustices of fate. FitzGerald emphasizes the religious skepticism he found in Khayyam and rejects all notions of a sufi interpretation of the poems."

"... The success of FitzGerald's translation, as English poetry, comes partly from his adoption of the Persian rhyme scheme (aaba), and from his relatively rigid metrical habits. Metrical regularity is used to convey a sense of ineluctable law, while the returning final rhyme functions as a last emphatic underlining of the insight offered. The sense of inescapable certainty this gives the verse is used to convey a content of great metaphysical uncertainty, and this, together with the work's surface exoticism for a Victorian audience, largely accounts for the very distinctive and paradoxical atmosphere of the poem; FitzGerald is saying with absolute conviction that no convictions can be absolute."

As regards the fourth of these passages, I see a sort of generic Victorian kinship with the five-line limericks of Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense (though his were pretty poor specimens, the last line simply echoing the first, his imitators soon sharpened up the genre):

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!

and the Gardener's six-line ditties (which can be sung to the tune of "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat") from Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno:

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
'The one thing I regret,' he said,
'Is that it cannot speak!'

but that's just off the record. Click here to see the 75 stanzas of the first edition in 1859 (coincidentally the year in which Darwin published The Origin of Species, another catalyst of religious scepticism in even the devoutest breast).

And click here if you'd like to see the full-on version of that edition, the meat and potatoes, which includes a great deal of inessential preliminary stuff contributed by the 'Reviewer', aka Edward Byles Cowell.

There seems to have been, and continue to be, a vast outpouring of publications relating to FitzGerald, his life and his versions of the Rubaiyat. Itemised below are the ones I've looked at and (mostly) found useful in connection with his first (1859) translation that seized my imagination as a teenager and has not in any way relaxed its grip since then.

The Calcutta Review, founded in May 1844, was published quarterly (ie four numbers per year even in its inaugural year). Each volume comprised just two numbers, so two volumes per year. Bear in mind that things appeared a quarter in arrears!

Click here to access an excellent digitisation of The Calcutta Review, Vol XXX (January – June 1858), No. LIX (March 1858). Under the index heading of (ART.V) Omar Khayyam, The Astronomer-Poet of Persia, pp149-162 appears the misleading item "L'Algébre d'Omar al Khayyaimi et accompagnée d'extrait de MSS inédits (en Arabe)"

Fortunately those pages do indeed contain the article by Edward Byles Cowell...

... which gives an account of Omar Khayyam's relatively uneventful life as mathematician and poet, and remarks that his mathematical side preserved him from the empty versification of the poetasters, while his poetic side humanised the arid certainties of arithmetic and algebra (a reminder of the 'poet and mathematician' whose mutually buttressed abilities make him such a formidable adversary in Poe's The Purloined Letter). Cowell also asserts that the mechanistic view of Nature's workings, as per Omar's study of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, had created a spiritual void within his soul, a nihilism, that only Christianity could have assuaged. That of course is a highly contentious, and indeed dangerous, point of view to adopt.

It is exceedingly inadvisable these days – as it was in the time of Henry VIII in England, but now on a global scale – to adopt any political or religious position that irrationally angers a ferocious opposition. I'm not particularly anxious to upset anybody whose murderous susceptibilities are on a hair trigger, so I'm happy to be seen as a neutral observer.

(But, like Terry Pratchett, I think that humans have totally messed-up their belief-systems and that the God of Rats should be given a chance to effect a synthesis, although the White Mice might have to be consulted first, as per Douglas Adams.)

The essay by Dick Davis, himself a poet of renown, is by far the most perceptive, informative, complete and authoritative account of Edward FitzGerald as poet and translator that I've come across on the internet. Read this even if you don't read the others.

The remaining three references together provide a well-rounded account of the details of FitzGerald's family background and his bizarre upbringing, and the rather odd but lovable character that he became. Axon's narrative does bang on about his subject's vegetarian issues, but this becomes understandable when we read Wikipedia's article about Axon himself!