FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Popularity and Neglect

FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Popularity and Neglect


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Edward FitzGerald's ‘Rubáiyát’, loosely based on verses attributed to the eleventh-century Persian writer, Omar Khayyám, has become one of the most widely known poems in the world, republished virtually every year from 1879 to the present day, and translated into over eighty different languages. And yet it has been largely ignored or at best patronized by the academic establishment. This volume sets out to explore the reasons for both the popularity and the neglect.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783080717
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 11/01/2013
Series: Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Adrian Poole is Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Christine van Ruymbeke is Soudavar Lecturer in Persian Studies at the University of Cambridge, and was formerly Lecturer at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium). William H. Martin and Sandra Mason are independent researchers with a long-standing interest in FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

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FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Popularity and Neglect

By Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke, William H. Martin, Sandra Mason

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke, William H. Martin and Sandra Mason
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-071-7



Dick Davis

Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was for a while the most famous verse translation ever made into English, and its extraordinary popular success – which lasted for perhaps a century, from about the 1860s to the 1960s – has ensured that it has been much picked over, carped at, imitated, admired and condescended to. If I had to decide I would put myself in the admiring and imitating camp, and I have at one time or another harboured quite a lot of irritation against those who have thought themselves superior enough to condescend to FitzGerald and his achievement. But rather than either simply carp or admire I want to start by considering the very peculiar nature of what FitzGerald did in the Rubáiyát.

To begin with, the impetus behind his translation, what prompted him to do it as it were, seems to be only partly comparable to what prompted most of his predecessors as verse translators into English to do what they did. In the middle years of the eighteenth century Thomas Gray noted in one of his letters that a history of English verse could easily be written showing how its two chief models had, since the time of Chaucer, been verse in French and Italian, and that these two models had tended to alternate in their hold on the English poetic imagination from one century to the next. Translation was one of the most obvious ways in which this imaginative hold was manifested, and it is certainly true that without verse translation English poetry as it came to exist would be unthinkable. To give three quick and well-known examples: the sonnet was introduced into English by Sir Thomas Wyatt's translations of Petrarch; blank verse was the invention of the Earl of Surrey in his translation of two books of Virgil's Aeneid, for which he had used as his model Italian translations into unrhymed hendecasyllabics of the same two books; and the couplet came into English twice over as it were, both times from French, first in its garrulous, catch-all, medieval and then Tudor form (Chaucer's partial translation of the Romance of the Rose is a good example of this), and the second time, which gave us what we think of as the heroic couplet with all the insistence on decorum, closure and metrical precision we associate with the term, in the mid-seventeenth century largely via translations of Corneille, notably those by Katherine Philips. Dr Johnson, who heartily loathed Gray and all he seems to have thought the poet stood for, including his insistence on the non-native sources of English prosody, is notoriously chauvinistic about translation in the preface to his dictionary:

The great pest of speech is frequency of translation. No book was ever turned from one language into another, without imparting something of its native idiom; this is the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation ... new phraseology changes much at once; it alters not the single stones of the building, but the order of the columns ...

And he goes on to lament 'the licence of translators, whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France'. And what could be worse than that, for any right-thinking Englishman? (Of course the fact that modern English, and certainly modern English verse, began as pretty well precisely that, a dialect of France, is passed over.) But beneath his chauvinist bluster Johnson is making a serious point: effective translation does not just add, it changes, and it changes essentially and irrevocably. Gray knew this, and rejoiced in the fact; Johnson knew it too, and it gave him the horrors.

Given Johnson's patriotic presuppositions, he was right to despise and distrust translation as much as he did. For the pre-eighteenth-century translators to whom Gray was referring, the act of translating was a way of effecting an introduction between English and what was perceived to be a civilisation, either French or Italian, that possessed, at the time, far greater cultural prestige than English. This is obviously so in English renderings and imitations of French works in Chaucer's period, and of Italian works in the Tudor period; English literature was playing a desperate game of cultural catch-up. Translations from the Classical languages serve to confirm this: no cultures had greater prestige than those of ancient Greece and Rome, and the attempt to introduce their virtues into one's own tongue via translation was clearly a self-consciously civilising enterprise. One would think that by the seventeenth century, with its empire incipiently underway and with its hugely self-confident Puritan revolution, England would no longer feel the need to play this game, and there is some truth to this. In so far as it did, it did so via the royalists, either those in France with the future Charles II, or those who longed for his return at home. The triumph of continental and specifically French taste, in literature, music and the visual arts, that accompanied the Restoration, must for a time have seemed almost as total as that which had overwhelmed England after the Norman Conquest.

I have strayed rather far from FitzGerald in order to underline what he was not doing: he was not translating for the reason that most famous English-language translators before his time had written their versions of non-English works. There is no sense in FitzGerald of a national civilising mission (the very phrase seems an absurdity, almost a joke, when put in the same sentence with his name). He is not, as I think Chaucer, Wyatt, Surrey, Golding, Chapman, Fairfax and Katherine Philips in their verse translations palpably were, trying to wrench English around so that the sun of what was perceived as a superior civilisation could shine full in its face, and it would shape up accordingly. In fact there's quite a lot of the kind of complacent mid-Victorian Englishman so mercilessly caricatured by Dickens about FitzGerald. In an argument between internationalists and chauvinists, along the lines of that between Gray and Johnson, it's not at all clear that FitzGerald would side automatically with the internationalists. His letters contain a fair number of Pecksniffian remarks about non-English cultures, including Persian; and the latter have hurt his reputation dearly among scholars of Persian culture, not to mention among Persian speakers themselves. FitzGerald's is not a national mission; it's a personal, private one. For the medieval and Tudor translator-poets, translation can be seen as a call for the whole clerisy of their time to undergo a kind of cultural conversion; for FitzGerald it is merely notice that he has found something personal to which he can privately assent, but there is no pressure for anyone else to do so, still less an implicit call for a wholesale cultural reevaluation.

This is partly due to the much stronger social and political position and reputation of England in the nineteenth century, and partly due I think to FitzGerald himself. It seems safe to say that during FitzGerald's lifetime most Englishmen, even most highly educated Englishmen, did not feel that their culture was in any way inferior to any contemporary European culture, and certainly not to any Asian culture, and so the powerful impulse towards translation as a tool of national self-improvement more or less disappeared. It was only in the nineteenth century that English literature became a fairly widespread model for other European countries' literatures, instead of using other countries' literatures as its models, and as much of a catalyst to translation as a recipient of it. The first British poet to have a wide European reputation in his own lifetime as the author of a new kind of poetry which was worth emulating was Byron. Apparent exceptions to this turn out to prove the rule: we know that Chaucer had a reputation in France during his own lifetime, but it was, in his contemporary Deschamps's phrase, as 'le grand traslateur'. Chaucer was admired in France primarily because he had made French poetry available to the English, rather than as the author of his own poems. Similarly, in the eighteenth century Alexander Pope and James Thomson were admired in France precisely because their works seemed to fit emerging contemporary French notions of what poetry should be, rather than because they were seen as foreign models to emulate. Byron though was something new, and with his works, for the first time, England led a literary fashion in Europe rather than merely following or conforming to one.

When it comes to FitzGerald himself we begin to deal with psychological suppositions that must necessarily be tentative. Nevertheless both his public persona and his copious private correspondence present us with a portrait of an essentially retiring person who hated pomp and self-importance of any kind, and who saw himself as an acolyte of literature, and of the arts generally, rather than as a major shaper or innovator. The extremely evasive way in which he published the Rubáiyát, and his insistence that it remain anonymous, at least until his cover was blown by his publisher, Bernard Quaritch, indicate the same thing. Although one can imagine FitzGerald, as the friend of a number of well-known literary luminaries, taking a quiet satisfaction in his poem's acclaim by the artistic beau monde of his time, the last thing he wanted to do was to make a big literary splash or attract everyone's attention either to his own work or to that of the author of the text he had translated. FitzGerald entirely lacks the self-promoting panache and swagger we associate with a great Tudor translator like George Chapman. And it seems safe to speculate that his retiring and evasive nature was compounded by his homosexuality, a sexual preference he perforce had to hide in Victorian England.

The seventeenth-century poet Wentworth Dillon had famously counselled the would-be verse translator to 'choose an author as you choose a friend',3 and I think FitzGerald could well claim to be the translator who took Dillon's advice to heart more than any other famous practitioner of the art. It is true that it is very often possible to discern a real congruity between what we feel an author's own personal inclinations and preoccupations to be, and those of the author whose work he chooses to translate. A good example of this can be found in Dryden's choice of Virgil's Aeneid as the translation to which he gave the most time and energy. Dryden and Virgil can seem very close in their concern for a new imperial order; both respond to the clarion call of governance and are happy to celebrate civic glory, and both are aware of an almost unformulable pathos shadowing the public world that demands their allegiance. But sometimes an affinity between a translator and his author can seem inapprehensible or hardly imaginable. What drew Pope to Homer, for example, apart from Homer's reputation as the greatest and first of poets, and perhaps Dryden's example and a wish to outdo it? This perceived incongruity between Pope and Homer is I think, as much as mere scholarly carping, what is behind the famous remark attributed to Richard Bentley, 'A very pretty poem Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer'. No one, except perhaps Pope, could imagine Homer describing Odysseus as someone who:

Wand'ring from clime to clime, observant stray'd,
Their Manners noted, and their States survey'd.

This almost unavoidably evokes the picture of a studious and stand-offish eighteenth-century English milord on the Grand Tour, rather than a hard-bitten ancient Greek sea-captain being tossed haphazardly around the Mediterranean in an open boat. But FitzGerald clearly found so much in Khayyám's quatrains that he sympathised with, and more than sympathised with, and which – and this perhaps is the crucial point – he could not find elsewhere, or at least not in such a concentrated form, that he seems almost to meld his own personality with that of his author, so that they do seem to become, briefly, one person. 'Nelly, I am Heathcliff', or as Wentworth Dillon had more prosaically, but still extravagantly enough, put it:

Your thoughts, your words, your styles, your souls agree,
No longer his interpreter, but he.

That sounds like Montaigne's On Friendship, and for FitzGerald translation was in a very real sense an extension of friendship. Many of the things that we know from other sources were valued by FitzGerald are discernible, and given emphatic sanction, in the quatrains he translated: retirement from the world of public affairs, the cultivation of friendship and conviviality, the given of religious scepticism and an irritation with those who profess religious certainty, a free-floating feeling of something like resentment combined with resignation against the way the universe is apparently ordered. All these are evident both in the quatrains attributed to Khayyám, and in FitzGerald's letters; no wonder FitzGerald saw Khayyám as a friend. There is also the all-important fact that he is obviously aware that the fallback assumption as to the gender of a beloved in medieval Persian lyric and epigrammatic verse is that we are talking about a young man rather than a young woman. Not a single woman is mentioned in FitzGerald's Rubáiyát, and it seems significant that he bucks the Victorian trend of seeing angels as feminine:

And lately, by the tavern door agape,
Came stealing through the dusk an angel shape
Bearing a vessel on his shoulder ...

His shoulder, note. Outside of the Greek Anthology it was difficult for a Victorian to find a corpus of poetry that told him homosexuality is fine, and translating the Greek poems that deal with it would have inevitably laid the translator open to suspicion. How fortunate for FitzGerald that he should come on a corpus that acknowledged desires analogous to those he could not publicly admit, and did so with sufficient ambiguity that readers not in the know need never suspect scandal. FitzGerald's first translation from Persian was of Jami's narrative poem Salámán and Absál, and here too we may see the same impulse to acknowledge a somewhat disguised homoerotic content. The usual generic / erotic distinction discernible in medieval Persian verse, whereby the beloved in the lyric or epigram is as likely as not to be male, whereas the relationships celebrated in narrative verse are virtually always heterosexual, is largely subverted by Jami in his two most famous narrative poems, Yusuf and Zuleikha and Salámán and Absál, both of which can be accused of fairly blatant misogyny, and both of which have obvious homoerotic subtexts. That FitzGerald should choose Salámán and Absál for his first venture into Persian does not seem merely serendipitous.

When we look at the quatrains ascribed to Khayyám that FitzGerald chose to translate we can say that they enabled him to speak in a voice that is his but not wholly his. It seems safe to surmise that it corresponds with something partly buried or hitherto inarticulate, which could not have been spoken in exactly that form were it not for FitzGerald's encounter with the poems attributed to Khayyám. Other translations that have had a strong cultural impact, and have continued to be read beyond their own time, often seem to speak in a similarly compelling voice that does not wholly belong either to the translator or to the original, but seems to hover as it were between the two. Arthur Golding's version of Ovid's Metamorphoses is a good example of this, and I would guess that the urgency in this translation comes from a similar obliquity arising from a half-buried life of some kind. In giving a compelling voice to something in the translator's own buried life, such translations, when they achieve sudden popularity, seem also to give voice to something that influential shapers of the contemporary target culture are ready to hear and welcome, that may have been hitherto half-buried for them as well.


Excerpted from FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke, William H. Martin, Sandra Mason. Copyright © 2013 Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke, William H. Martin and Sandra Mason. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Preface; Notes on Contributors; List of Illustrations; Introduction - Adrian Poole; 1. Edward FitzGerald, Omar Khayyám, and the Tradition of Verse Translation into English - Dick Davis 2. Much Ado about Nothing in the Rubáiyát - Daniel Karlin; 3. Common and Queer: Syntax and Sexuality in the Rubáiyát - Erik Gray; 4. A Victorian Poem: Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám - Clive Wilmer; 5. FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát and Agnosticism - Marta Simidchieva; 6. The Similar Lives and Different Destinies of Thomas Gray, Edward FitzGerald and A. E. Housman - Anthony Briggs; 7. The Second (1862 Pirate) Edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám - John Drew; 8. Edward Heron-Allen: A Polymath’s Approach to FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám - Garry Garrard; 9. ‘Under Omar’s subtle spell’: American Reprint Publishers and the Omar Craze - John Roger Paas; 10. The Imagined Elites of the Omar Khayyám Club - Michelle Kaiserlian; 11. Le Gallienne’s Paraphrase and the Limits of Translation - Adam Talib; 12. ‘Some for the Glories of the Sole’: The Rubáiyát and FitzGerald’s Sceptical American Parodists - Annmarie S. Drury; 13. The Vogue of English Rubáiyát and Dedicatory Poems in Honour of Khayyám and FitzGerald - Parvin Loloi; 14. The Illustration of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát and its Contribution to Enduring Popularity - William H. Martin and Sandra Mason; Bibliography; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

'This is the best volume now available on FitzGerald’s solicitous intelligence as translator and poet, his impleached arts of living and language, his sexual and religious ambivalences. Combining sensitive and sensible practical criticism with painstaking material and social histories of influence, it should attract further explorations of the alien vision and “new world of feeling” offered by the Rubáiyát’s conciliation of cultures.' —Dr Christopher Decker, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

'This volume explores the already fascinating story of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát, by following various new directions: textual and linguistic studies, together with socio-cultural and philosophical explorations. It also focuses on a number of factors that contributed to the poem’s continuous fame: the American publishers, the Omar Khayyám Clubs, the parodies, other translations, and of course, the art of illustrating the Rubáiyát.' —Jos Coumans, Secretary of the Netherlands Omar Khayyám Society, Editor of ‘Omariana’

'Nothing can restore Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat to the cultural prominence of the late Victorian, early twentieth-century “Omar craze,” but this splendid bicentenary collection of essays is at least a salutary reminder of the poem’s greatness and of its immense cultural significance both as a translation and as poem in its own right. The diversity of the collection’s contributors, including poets, translators, Persian scholars and Victorianists, leads to a remarkably broad and deep understanding of FitzGerald’s achievement, and of the cultural resonance and impact of the poem over many decades.' —Professor David Riede, Ohio State University

'Despite of having done research in this field for almost thirty years now, I was surprised by the rich content of the essays in this book. They provide not only a lot of new information, but also remarkably new and stimulating points of view.' —Jos Biegstraaten, President of the Netherlands Omar Khayyám Society

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