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Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam is a mosaic of joyful resignation, a celebration of life here, now, fully aware of its limits. The pieces with which FitzGerald composed the poem are quatrains—four line verses—selected from among the many written by the Persian astronomer-mathematician Omar Khayyam in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in what is now Iran. FitzGerald approached Khayyam’s quatrains the way a mosaic artist might approach the fragments of a broken vase, sifting through the pieces to find the best fit, breaking some to make them fit better. In Khayyam, he found little jewels, hard pieces with a beauty of their own. But as he worked with them, he began to see them as a single poem, arranged from the rising of the sun to the rising of the moon, all set in the Persian garden of a Victorian imagination—not a narrative, but a space in which to enjoy life now rather than simply drifting into resigned submission to the stern judges of Khayyam’s Islam and FitzGerald’s Christianity.
FitzGerald was born in 1809 in Suffolk, England, into a family whose wealth enabled him to live a life of quiet leisure devoted to study and writing. He attended Cambridge University and became acquainted there with some of the best-known writers of the day, including the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair) and Alfred Tennyson (who later became Poet Laureate). FitzGerald published his first book, a Platonic dialogue called Euphranor, in 1851, followed in 1852 by a collection of old sayings titled Polonius. He published translations from both Spanish and Persian before producing the free translation of Omar Khayyam’s Ruba’iyat for which he is best remembered.
FitzGerald’s version of Khayyam’s Ruba’iyat is among the most influential English poems of the Victorian era, and it may stand alone as the most widely known. Casual readers who could not quote a line of Tennyson or Browning and would not know Thackeray by name know “A little bread beneath the Bough, / A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness— / Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” And, though the source may not be at their fingertips, many who do not read poetry at all could accurately fill in the blank after “The Moving Finger writes. . . .”
The poem did not always have such a wide or appreciative audience, and the story of how it found one—and how it came to be in the first place—is an interesting window on Victorian literature, translation, cultural transmission, poetic inspiration, and timing.
The story begins, as is appropriate to the era, with a small circle of friends—in this case, three: FitzGerald, Edward Cowell, and Elizabeth Cowell (née Charlesworth). It was Edward Cowell who encouraged FitzGerald to study Spanish and Persian, paving the way for his translations of Pedro Calderón de la Barca as well as the work for which he is especially remembered. They met through Elizabeth Charlesworth, an old family friend FitzGerald had known for years. That FitzGerald referred to her in later correspondence as his “old flame” (though, in appropriately Victorian fashion, he apparently did not make this known to her at the time) partly accounts for the closeness of the relationship that developed among the three. Elizabeth met Cowell in 1843, when he was seventeen and she was thirty-one. They became engaged in 1845 and married two years later. The circle of friends was complete early in 1845, when FitzGerald and Cowell first met.
At that time, FitzGerald knew no Persian; but Cowell had already published a scattering of translations from Persian poetry. Encouraged by Elizabeth, over FitzGerald’s objections, Cowell returned to Oxford to complete his formal studies; and he went on to become a leading scholar of Oriental languages, ultimately being appointed to the chair of Sanskrit at Cambridge. After completing his degree at Oxford, Cowell accepted a faculty appointment in Calcutta—but not long before he left to take up that post, while working in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, he discovered a Persian manuscript containing rubai’iyat (quatrains) by Omar Khayyam, then virtually unknown outside Persia (and known in Persia not as a poet, but as an astronomer and mathematician). Cowell put his transcription of the manuscript in FitzGerald’s hands, and it became his passion—partly because of the music of the poetry, partly because of its content, and partly because it filled a vacuum at a time when FitzGerald’s ill-advised marriage to Lucy Barton had failed and two of his dearest friends were moving far away. Lucy Barton was the daughter of the Quaker poet Bernard Barton, an old friend of FitzGerald’s. When Lucy’s father was on his deathbed, Edward’s promise to look after her was transformed by a thoroughly Victorian sense of propriety and honor into a marriage proposal. The two were not at all suited for each other, and, though they never formally divorced, the marriage lasted less than a year.
FitzGerald kept up a steady correspondence with the Cowells in the years immediately following their departure for India. It is in part a long distance collaboration on Khayyam that develops to the point at which FitzGerald can write “But in truth I take old Omar rather more as my property than yours: he and I are more akin, are we not? You see all his Beauty, but you don’t feel with him in some respects as I do.” That the relationship of two English writers to Omar Khayyam and his work was cast first in terms of property, then in terms of kinship, Beauty, and, finally, feeling speaks volumes about the Victorian age and alerts contemporary readers to some of the controversies that have arisen around FitzGerald’s translations. That the attitude toward Omar’s poetry is an instance of what Edward Said called Orientalism is particularly problematic in approaching FitzGerald’s ruba’iyat as a translation of Persian poetry. But the determination of “ownership” by kinship, Beauty, and feeling turns our attention to the English poem more than the Persian inspiration. And there is little doubt that this is a work of Victorian genius, recognized by writers and thinkers as diverse as the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the artist, poet, and critic John Ruskin; American scholar Charles Eliot Norton; Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle; poet Alfred Lord Tennyson; American attorney Clarence Darrow; Mark Twain, and the young T. S. Eliot.
The Persian inspiration was a collection of epigrams written in the form of ruba’iyat (the plural of ruba’i, derived from an Arabic root meaning “four” and generally translated as “quatrain”). In these ruba’iyat, FitzGerald encountered formal poetry of four lines (quatrains) with an end rhyme pattern in which either all four lines rhymed (aaaa) or the first, second, and fourth lines rhymed (aaba). FitzGerald’s first translations tended to form the material into the familiar English quatrain with alternating end rhyme (abab), but, in its final form, his ruba’iyat take up the aaba pattern. More technically, the lines in Persian are epigrams in the form of couplets, each consisting of two hemistichs (half lines) separated by a caesura—a pause—and arranged, not narratively or logically, but alphabetically by the last letter of the rhyming word. As FitzGerald worked with the material, he came to the conclusion (expressed in an August 6, 1857, letter to Edward Cowell) that “a very pretty Eclogue might be tessellated out of his scattered Quatrains.” FitzGerald’s “eclogue” calls Virgil’s poetry to mind, but also the pastoral tradition of English poetry. It is, at heart, a poem of idyllic country life, familiar to Victorian Romantics as an antidote to the advance of industrialization and urbanization. And to speak of tessellating it is to draw on a mathematical term for tiling a plane in such a way as to leave no overlaps of tiles and no gaps between them.
And that is the form FitzGerald’s poem took. Khayyam’s discrete Persian ruba’iyat become the raw material for English quatrains “tessellated” into an eclogue of a single day, from dawn (“Wake! for the sun behind yon Eastern height . . . ,” the first quatrain as translated in the present edition) to night (“But see! The rising Moon of Heavn again / Looks for us . . . ,” the second to last quatrain)—the tiles of a mosaic with no gaps and no overlaps, a place for everything and everything in its place, quintessentially Victorian. Writing to Cowell in November 1858 (the year before the first edition appeared), FitzGerald reports that “it is most ingeniously tessellated into a sort of Epicurean Eclogue in a Persian Garden.” But if that were all, this would likely be nothing more than a Victorian curiosity. What makes it more interesting and probably explains the kinship FitzGerald felt for “old Omar” is the subtle criticism of religious and social orthodoxy barely contained in the epigrams—whether tessellated in an English Epicurean eclogue or not.
Consider number 108 in the edition published here:
Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
With or without interest in the technicalities of the rhyme scheme, the music of these four lines is clearly audible, as is the power of “the Heart’s Desire.” And the theological sentiment FitzGerald has expressed through his rendering of Khayyam is clear, whether it is true to Khayyam or not: the present scheme of things is “sorry,” and the poet would, if he could, conspire with Fate, shatter it, and make it something closer to what our hearts desire. And, while the “universalist” theology of number 95 must have been enough to catch FitzGerald’s eye and inspire the scrutiny of conservative theologians among readers of both Khayyam and FitzGerald, he has made it sing with good-natured humor in Victorian English:
Said one—“Folks of a surly Master tell,
“And daub his Visage with the Smoke of Hell;
“They talk of some sharp Trial of us—Pish!
“He’s a good Fellow, and ’twill all be well.”
The cadence is that of the most formal Victorian poetry; but that’s God who is “a good Fellow,” hardly the stern, distant Master familiar from the most conservative theologies of both Christianity and Islam—and not only a “good Fellow,” but a good fellow with a steady hand:
None answer’d this; but after 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?”
Ungainly, yes, but confident in the steady hand of the Potter—a lyrical rendition of the sentiment later expressed in an American vernacular as “God don’t make junk.”
Much of the scholarly work on Omar Khayyam stimulated by the immense popularity of FitzGerald’s poem has focused on the question of whether or not he was a Sufi (a member of the mystical branch of Islam most familiar from the so-called “whirling Dervishes” of the Mevlevi tradition). That would suffice to make him interesting to Western readers fascinated by this mystical branch of Islam (as evidenced by the continuing popularity of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi who has become, by some accounts, the best-selling poet in the United States, thanks to the popular translations of Coleman Barks). But it is more likely that he was an orthodox Muslim with some sympathy toward Sufism and little patience for the increasingly rigid interpretation of Islam developing in the eleventh and twelfth century (fifth and sixth century by the Islamic calendar) Persia in which he wrote. (Abu’l Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim Khayyam was born in about 439 AH/1048 CE and died around 517/1126.) One widely accepted theory is that Khayyam, a philosopher and scientist by profession, turned to poetry—as an amateur—to express critical ideas he could not express directly in philosophical or theological writing. Given the fact that FitzGerald chose the “tamest” of the ruba’iyat when he first approached a publisher about his translations, the resonance with Victorian restraints—social and theological—is evident. FitzGerald, though an Anglican, had as little patience for rigid Christianity (whether Anglo-Catholic or evangelical) as Khayyam had for rigid Islam. FitzGerald took up the practical epicurianism of Khayyam’s ruba’iyat—a commitment to tranquility, pleasure in moderation, and freedom from fear of divine punishment—as an echo of his own, as reflected, for example in the quatrains numbered thirteen and fourteen in this edition:
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go,
Nor heed the music of a distant Drum!
Were it not Folly, Spider-like to spin
The Thread of present Life away to win
What? for ourselves, who know not if we shall
Breathe out the very Breath we now breathe in!
That darkly cheerful tranquility, cast in the familiar form of an English pastoral with the exotic touch of a Persian garden, explains the explosion of popularity the poem experienced after almost being lost (as FitzGerald expected it to be) in obscurity.
Which leads to a larger (and still growing) circle of friends.
Ingenious though the tessellation may have been, the poem was rejected when FitzGerald first submitted it. More precisely, it was allowed to languish for a year until FitzGerald withdrew it and printed it himself in a limited edition consisting of seventy-five quatrains. That it languished for a year rather than being rejected outright probably indicates that the publisher shared FitzGerald’s concern about the opinion of conservative clergy among his readers, for whom even an implicit attack on traditional Christianity would be problematic. That edition did not sell and was, ultimately, put in the “bargain bin” at a penny a copy. And there it would almost certainly have died if someone had not discovered it and purchased copies for friends. Among the friends—or friends of friends—as it turns out, was the previously mentioned poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who told his friend, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who accompanied him to the bookstore to purchase copies (which had doubled in price, Rossetti joked, because of the increased demand). The circle of pre-Raphaelites, artists and writers who rebelled against the influence of Sir Joshuah Reynolds and classicism in painting (including not only Rossetti and Swinburne but also designer William Morris, of special interest because of his influence on Edmund Dulac, one of the best-known illustrators of FitzGerald’s Omar) spread the book to their friends, and it eventually found its way (in 1863) into the hands of the influential critic John Ruskin, who wrote a letter to the unnamed translator in which he said “I never did—till this day—read anything so glorious, to my mind, as this poem. . . .” That letter did not find its way to FitzGerald until several years later, after the eminent American scholar Charles Eliot Norton mentioned it in casual conversation with Thomas Carlyle, who had been unaware of the poem or that FitzGerald (who was an old friend) was the translator.
Norton, who had been introduced to FitzGerald’s poem by John Ruskin, wrote the first review in 1869 (ten years after the first edition appeared) and published it in the United States in the North American Review, which he edited then. In that review, he noted that FitzGerald was not a “plain” translator—an observation also made from the beginning by FitzGerald, who presented his work as a paraphrase or a rendering rather than a translation, and echoed by Swinburne, who said the poem owed “as much or more to Suffolk, than to Shirez.” Norton wrote of the then unnamed translator that “He is to be called ‘translator’ only in default of a better word, one which should express the poetic transfusion of a poetic spirit from one language to another, and the re-presentation of the ideas and images of the original in a form not altogether diverse from their own, but perfectly adapted to the new conditions of time, place, custom, and habit of mind in which they appear.” That reading, echoed so many times since, is a key to understanding the impact of FitzGerald’s work. As it grew in popularity, it was subjected to scholarly scrutiny; and mistakes and inaccuracies of translation were catalogued as more information about Omar Khayyam was gathered. But, to a remarkable degree, scholars far more qualified than FitzGerald to read Khayyam’s Persian accurately have agreed that his rendering captures the spirit of the original better than more literal (and more technically accurate) translations.
And that is a tribute to the poetic sensibilities of FitzGerald and the circle of friends that has grown around his work on aesthetic grounds more concerned with Beauty and kinship of feeling in language than with technical accuracy in translation. In the spirit of those penny copies that first found their way into the hands of an enthusiastic circle of friends, this new edition makes its way into the world confident of the beauty of the poem—and of the serendipity that keeps such circles growing.
Steven Schroeder is a poet and philosopher who lives and writes in Chicago.