Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám 
by Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Daniel Karlin.
Oxford, 167 pp., £9.99, January 2009, 978 0 19 954297 0
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A glass-fronted Regency bookcase in a corner of the London Library opposite the lift holds a collection of rare and beautiful editions of Edward FitzGerald’s poem, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Since its first publication in 1859, it has appeared in every size and shape, giant and toy, on vellum and silk, in fabulous bindings stamped with peacocks’ tails and nightingales’ eyes; it has been printed by masters for tiny private presses, handwritten and illustrated by artists – beginning with the trio of William Morris, Burne-Jones and Charles Fairfax Murray, who helped launch the work after some friends came across it in a remainders box outside Quaritch’s. Two years had passed since the bookseller first published it, at the price of 1s, and not a single copy, it seems, had been sold.

That same year, 1861, Rossetti and Swinburne took it up with enthusiasm. Across the Atlantic, the American artist Elihu Vedder, a specialist in antiquarian Eastern fantasies, whose writhing snakes of healing wisdom and forbidding, yet full-breasted, goddesses of scholarship, history and memory still greet readers at the Library of Congress, followed the Pre-Raphaelite lead and produced a lavish edition of Omar Khayyám in 1884. The poem continued to attract devotees, and a whole company of eccentrics: the splendid London Library cache – more than 300 Rubáiyáts – was put together by the polymorphous Orientalist Edward Heron-Allen, who was an expert in cheirosophy (palm-reading), the leading light in the field of fidicinology (the study of instruments played with a bow), and wrote the definitive work on barnacles. Heron-Allen struggled to identify which poems by Omar Khayyám FitzGerald had rendered into English, the task proving so labyrinthine that he effectively had to back-translate FitzGerald’s quatrains into Persian. Baron Corvo did a version; Augustus John supplied the images for a translation into Romany Welsh. More recently, W.G. Sebald searched out FitzGerald’s grave in the churchyard in the village of Boulge in Suffolk, and, in the same way that FitzGerald chose to speak through Omar Khayyám, Sebald seems in The Rings of Saturn to speak through FitzGerald when he describes with evident fellow-feeling the poet’s misanthropic solitude.

The Rubáiyát – it acquired a definite article as a sign of its status, like the Odyssey or the Vita Nuova – was once the most widely known and quoted work of Victorian poetry in the world, many of its couplets so famous that the poem itself suffered, since the step from beloved familiarity to staleness is short:

Ah, fill the Cup: – what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
  Unborn TO-MORROW, and dead YESTERDAY
Why fret about them if TO-DAY be sweet!

The book held its own as a favourite for decades, but was scorned by Bloomsbury and modernists; its atmosphere of Oriental dressing-gowns and toffs’ dining clubs, its archaising mannerisms (all those capitalised nouns, all those quaint diacritics), were seen as repellent, if not reprehensible. The sexuality – the homoeroticism – was too sissy, and the carpe diem sentiments of the drinking songs and the worldliness of the tone were far too whimsical and decadent for most survivors of the First World War. And then there was the lingering imperialist politics of the enterprise. FitzGerald was a rich dilettante, whose Anglo-Irish mother’s fortune from Irish rents was so large that her husband had changed his name to hers. Though FitzGerald did not join in the imperial venture – and indeed hardly left England – his translations from Persian and other languages depended on the web of contacts the empire established, and thrived on the knowledge gained from its commercial and political ambitions. As Edward Said pointed out, such interests directed scholarship, however detached the scholars themselves seemed from the profits of imperialism. Archaeologists, linguists, scientists and geographers moved along with the armies of soldiers and civil servants as the British and the French entrenched their rule in the Middle East. FitzGerald, who temperamentally shrank from power and the powerful, played no direct part in this, and often expressed his unease at British ambitions abroad. But when, in 1856, he was first shown Omar Khayyám’s poetry and began working on his Persian in order to translate it, he responded so intensely to its themes because they invoked a dream world, a place very far from England, where all manner of thoughts could be thought and acts could be enacted. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám attracted him – as it attracted readers after him – because it revelled in pleasures mostly unspoken and certainly proscribed by the Victorians. In this, it’s flagrantly Orientalist in Said’s terms: the Orient is defined and confined to Otherness, a zone of languorous, ineffectual, hedonist, perfumed sensuality, tinged with godlessness and self-indulgent materialism, decadent, unmanly. In short, it is deserving of conquest and rule by the capable, virile energies of Western bureaucrats.

This variegated history is told in The Persian Sensation: ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ in the West, at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, where the collection, at more than 400 editions, outdoes even Heron-Allen’s; the curators attempt to counter the decadent tendencies of the past with material on the poem’s life in present-day Iran. In his useful new edition Daniel Karlin argues – the case he makes is lively and convincing – that we have been misled by all the greenery-yallery stuff that has enveloped the Rubáiyát for decades, and that a different form of attention to FitzGerald allows a fascinating study in the psychology of inspiration, even across a gap of eight centuries.

Like Funes the Memorious, FitzGerald was a lover of words and a great reader of dictionaries; his head rang with everything he had ever read, and snatches and patches of verse from Greek, Latin and the English poets tuned his ear. If the Rubáiyát reads as if its lines have always existed, this is an effect of the echo chamber of FitzGerald’s bookish mind. He was shabby yet patrician, reclusive, odd and obsessive; a vegetarian and a teetotaller, he was treated with affection in the Suffolk village where he lived most of his long life and where he was known as ‘Dotty’. He had had a chilly upper-class upbringing; his sophisticated mother would occasionally make a flying visit from London to drop in on the nursery, where, FitzGerald reported, ‘we children were not much comforted.’ His adult life was marked by fierce, long-lasting crushes, and he accepted with apparent stoicism – perhaps even with relief? – when his feelings were not requited. His attempt at marriage lasted a single miserable winter, and was ended by a contract that paid his wife a large sum never to contact him again. He conducted passionate friendships mostly by correspondence with younger, sporty men who were usually married, or about to marry. He also kept up with many friends from his Cambridge days, such as Tennyson, who were more of the world than he was. He helped read the proofs of Tennyson’s first two-volume collection, Poems (1842), which made the poet’s reputation.

He was a brilliant editor, whose method mostly involved cutting. But he didn’t stop at words. A keen collector and antiquarian, he liked to trim paintings and touch out any unsightly parts. This hands-on involvement throws light on his method of translation. His casual flouting of the integrity of someone else’s work seems startling now; but it can also be looked at in a way that helps us see what was going on between FitzGerald and an 11th-century Persian poet that made it possible for a Victorian classic to take shape.

FitzGerald’s ‘dear old Khayyám’, his beloved ‘old Omar’ or ‘Tentmaker’ (the surname Khayyám means ‘tentmaker’) was an illustrious scholar, an astronomer and an algebraist. He was meditating in Persia on his theorems and the fugitive qualities of life around the time, as Borges reminds us in a marvellous essay on FitzGerald, when ‘on an island to the north and west that is unknown to the cartographers of Islam, a Saxon king who defeated a king of Norway is defeated by a Norman duke.’ Khayyám’s work on cubic equations remains fundamental.

It seems it was a sideline, versifying. Composing quatrains was a cultured pastime, just as the Heian Japanese a century or so before amused themselves in idle moments by writing blazons to iris roots or recording witty meditations in pillowbooks. The rubai is a characteristic Persian verse form, consisting of a four-line stanza, and there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of examples extant. But Omar Khayyám’s fame, which became proverbial, meant that many many more poems than he actually composed were attributed to him. His name had become a byword for brilliance, inspiration and a certain flavour – FitzGerald described it as ‘a strange Farrago of Grave and Gay’. The light touch conceals a melancholy; the call to carouse sounds a threnody too. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was a collection of verse in a specific poetic form, like a villanelle or a sestina, but unlike them, the genre had a particular philosophical flavour.

These epigrammatic, sophisticated, often mordant verses display FitzGerald’s adroitness in handling this stanza form, with its musical power, reminiscent of the characteristic slide of a tango tune that makes the body wait before releasing the dancers into completing the figure. FitzGerald catches the effect in a foreword to the second edition, where he says that the verse form was ‘Something as in the Greek Alcaic, where the third line seems to lift and suspend the Wave that falls over in the last’:

I long for Wine! oh Sáki of my Soul,
Prepare thy Song and fill the morning Bowl;
  For this first Summer Month that brings the Rose
Takes many a Sultan with it as it goes.

The first version of the Rubáiyát ascribed to Omar Khayyám comprised 75 quatrains from a manuscript in the Bodleian which had been shown to FitzGerald by his younger friend Edward Byles Cowell. Cowell, a brilliant autodidact Orientalist, left to take up a Chair in History at the Presidency College in Calcutta in 1856, and after his departure the two wrote back and forth a stream of letters about minutiae of interpretation. Later, Cowell transcribed many more poems from another manuscript he found in the Asiatic Institute in Calcutta, and sent them on to FitzGerald. Just as he used scissors and paste on the new acquisitions for his picture gallery, so FitzGerald kept at his ‘dear old Khayyám’. In a letter he wrote that he wanted to render him into ‘tolerable English Music’. His vocabulary emphasises consonants, with full rhymes on Anglo-Saxon masculine endings and a strong preference for the quick tempo of the monosyllabic verb: strike and fling and blow and start and fret and stamp and drink – and more drink. The transformation of scattered Persian epigrams into a braided English sequence – ‘something of an Eclogue’, he called it – kept having to be redone, undone and done again. FitzGerald’s approach to translation consciously reprised Dryden’s idea of imitation, rather than paraphrase or word-for-word accuracy. But his imitations are also ‘overdrafts’, as Basil Bunting brilliantly entitled his experiments with Latin and Persian poets, perhaps with FitzGerald distantly in mind. To Cowell, FitzGerald wrote: ‘But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.’

When in 1867 a French scholar, J.B. Nicolas, produced a set of more than 400 rubáiyát he had selected and translated, FitzGerald was roused to new labours, and very quickly produced a second edition of his Rubáiyát, with major alterations to some of the most celebrated stanzas, and the whole sequence almost twice its original length (110 quatrains). Karlin’s edition gives all these changes and additions in footnotes, which means they are a little difficult to follow, unlike the clearly presented definitive edition by Christopher Decker in 1997 (Decker’s edition is out of print). But the changes are worth attending to: here is a poet who not only throws his voice to speak as someone else, but can’t quite settle on the pitch. This is the opening verse in his 1859 edition:

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

By 1868 we have the more stately, hymn-like decorum of:

Wake! For the Sun behind yon Eastern height
Has chased the Sessions of the Stars from Night;
And, to the field of Heav’n ascending, strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

The new Latinate vocabulary doesn’t share the superb, mimetic sharpness of the earlier vision, with the light breaking from below the horizon. However, many of the new verses in this second edition are as fine as any in the original, and they often make the free-thinking point more strongly:

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse – why, then, Who set it there?

FitzGerald had been stung into returning to the poem because Nicolas had propounded the theory that Omar Khayyám was a mystic, a devout Sufi. According to him, the Vine meant God, the Cup some kind of Holy Grail, the Cup-Bearer (the Sáki of my soul) an Angel, Wine was divinity itself, and so forth. But FitzGerald was an agnostic with a sceptical mind, and he had made Omar an Eastern Epicurean. ‘“Drink and make-merry,” . . . recurs over-frequently in the Original,’ he would later write:

Any way, the Result is sad enough: saddest perhaps when most ostentatiously merry: any way, fitter to move Sorrow than Anger toward the old Tentmaker, who, after vainly endeavouring to unshackle his Steps from Destiny, and to catch some authentic Glimpse of TOMORROW, fell back upon TODAY (which has out-lasted so many Tomorrows!) as the only Ground he got to stand upon, however momentarily slipping from under his Feet.

For those of us who think of the Victorians as upright upholders of tradition, it remains a compelling mystery how the Rubáiyát became such a runaway success, its quatrains sprinkled liberally in sermons, after dinner speeches and love letters alike. Borges confesses that he doesn’t know how to interpret the ‘miracle’ of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát. He hazards two explanations: the first is that FitzGerald was the reincarnation of Omar Khayyám, and he is only half in jest. ‘Isaac Luria the Lion taught that the soul of a dead man can enter an unfortunate soul to nourish or instruct it; perhaps, around 1857, Omar’s soul took up residence in FitzGerald’s.’ He goes on to propose instead ‘a benevolent coincidence. Clouds sometimes form the shapes of mountains or lions; similarly, the unhappiness of Edward FitzGerald and a manuscript of yellow paper and purple letters, forgotten on a shelf of the Bodleian at Oxford, formed, for our benefit, the poem.’

Surely the key is that aside: ‘a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life.’ FitzGerald transfused his own life, even as he deemed it a paltry thing, into the persona of Omar Khayyám, who would lift it from that paltriness and transfigure him. He was able to formulate through his Persian avatar an outlook, a world vision, a testament. Only someone who never drank would give drink such a positive role, with never a moment of self-disgust. But the rest is sincere: the sweet belief in love and the feline blaspheming when even pots of clay rail against the deity’s neglect – if he exists at all.

This way of writing is a form of channelling, and Oriental personae have often been used for such enterprises: think of the encounter between Theodore Flournoy, a professor of psychology in Geneva, and the Martian and Arabian personalities of the medium, Hélène Smith; think of George Hyde-Lees, Mrs Yeats, unlocking her husband’s poetic voice by summoning the improbable figure of Leo Africanus into their parlour during the table-turning and automatic writing sessions on which W.B. Yeats so depended. The ‘Byzantium’ poems were the consequence.

But Yeats was a latecomer to this procedure. In Germany, in the first decades of the 19th century, Goethe had experienced a moment of crystallisation when he saw his own face in the mirror of another – another Persian, the poet Háfiz, who lived in the 14th century. Goethe, who was then in his mid-sixties, was drawn to Eastern literature and curious about Oriental and other exotic philosophies – his Faust seems to morph from medieval conjuror into Siberian shaman. But the discovery of Persian lyric in the work of Háfiz excited Goethe to new and ardent outpourings in the long sequence of 1819, The West-Eastern Divan. In these poems, Goethe ventriloquises his newly found alter ego, patron saint of the bottle and the pleasures of love, in enraptured terms:

  And though the whole world sink to ruin, I will emulate you, Háfiz, you alone! Let us, who are twin spirits, share pleasure and sorrow! To love like you, and drink like you, shall be my pride and my life-long occupation.

  Now, oh my song, speak forth with fire of your own!

As in the case of Omar Khayyám and Edward FitzGerald, Háfiz’s obsessions allow Goethe to entertain fresh dreams and hopes, directed towards the passion of his late years, the 30-year-old Marianne von Willemer, his ‘Suleika’. She is both subject and addressee – these are love poems, and some of them are also written by her. So, in both these powerful lyric sequences, The West-Eastern Divan and the Rubáiyát, the idea of authorship is complicated. Goethe published all the poems under his own name; Edward FitzGerald refused to sign his work: he wanted to disappear into the persona of Omar Khayyám.

FitzGerald only seems to have been able to attain a sense of himself through another: you might say that he never reached the ‘mirror phase’ and understood that he was a separate being, an individual apart from those to whom he turned for comfort, security and sustenance. I don’t think it’s glib to connect this pattern with his grim memories of childhood. Ventriloquism and impersonation recur insistently in the story of the Orientalist love affair of Europe with the Middle East. Karlin draws attention to the numerous writers who used Eastern forms to mask themselves and allow them to perform in different guises. FitzGerald, this austere and solitary figure, whose friendships with men were filled with longing and incompletion, wrote a paean to the pleasures of drink and palm-shaded picnics:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

A very English romance, with Omar Khayyám and his Sáki as his avatars, conjured by FitzGerald in order to act out his second life.

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Vol. 31 No. 8 · 30 April 2009

In her review of Daniel Karlin’s edition of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát, Marina Warner writes that the critical edition by Christopher Decker is no longer in print (LRB, 9 April). In fact it was reprinted in 2008 and is currently available from the University of Virginia Press.

Loren Biggs
University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville

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