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Thoughts on reading "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam", translated by Edward Fitzgerald

jeudi 20 février 2014, par Ray

One is first and foremost captivated by the sheer lyrical beauty of the poem, from the first of the seventy-five quatrains (or rubaiyats) :

- 1 -
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 Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

and the stirring early cry :

- 7 -
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling :
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly - and Lo ! the Bird is on the Wing.

through the famous :

- 11 -
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.

and more melancholy strains such as :

- 51 -
The Moving Finger writes ; and, having writ,
Moves on : nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

to the final wistful lament :

- 72 -
Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose !
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close !
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and wither flown again, who knows !

This text is superb. There is a swing and a swell to the words, which sweep along in a quite irresistible way, almost independently of the far-reaching content. These words have an aura, a cachet, a distinctive style that make this text stand apart from all others. So we must apply credit where credit is due : while the original words were written in medieval Persian, the author of the English words just has to be regarded as an authentic poet in his own right who has created a masterpiece in his own language. There are precedents for that too, although perhaps not in poetry form : one cannot but help thinking of the inspired panel of translators of the King James Version of the Bible, one of the great monuments of the English language.

Unlike King James’s scholarly translators, however, Fitzgerald’s approach was to render the spirit of the original in what we might call a linguistically loose translation that above all had to live and sparkle, while conveying what he saw as the essence of the original poet’s attitude and approach to life and spirituality.

To do this, he adapted and interpreted and heightened and even selected where he felt necessary to achieve his aesthetic aim - an aim which he successfully achieved, to produce a work of art that has fully passed the test of time since its initial publication in 1859.

One is also immediately struck by the hedonistic love of wine that permeates the text, so widely at variance with what we have come to expect from the Muslim Weltanshauung (attitude to life). Here is a pure product of a deeply Islamic culture not only celebrating the virtues of the fermented Grape, but calling for it morning (stanza 2), noon (stanza 20) and night (stanza 71), throughout the poem’s evolution from dawn to dusk - not just to provide solace from life’s dilemmas but as a very way of life, perhaps not inferior to other more spiritual or scholarly ones :

- 2 -
Dreaming, when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a voice within the Tavern cry,
’Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.’

- 20 -
Ah, my Belovéd, fill the Cup that clears
Today of past Regrets and future Fears -
Tomorrow ? - Why, Tomorrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.

- 71 -
And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour - well,
I often wonder what the Vintners buy
One half so precious as the Goods they sell.

The poem was written in the early 12th Century in a Persia that had been utterly seeped in the intensely devout Shiite variant of the Islamic faith for four hundred years - and yet its author is as relaxed about the virtues and effects of the divine grape as any 20th Century Irish writer you care to name. Can it be that in the heyday of the great Moslem civilisations there was a more relaxed attitude to the Koranic strictures on everyday behaviour than is current in today’s Moslem societies ?

One cannot also help but be struck by the liberty of tone with which the author meditates on spirituality and the value of religion in helping man on his journey through life, so unlike what we have come to expect from the Moslem world of today.

Consider for example the nihilism of :

- 24 -
Alike for those who for TODAY prepare
And those that after a TOMORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries,
’Fools ! your Reward is neither Here nor There !’

- 25 -
Why, all the Saints and Sages discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth ; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

and the bold scepticism of :

- 52 -
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help - for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou and I.

and the audacious Job-like interpellation to the Creator of :

- 58 -
Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake ;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give - and take !

We can perhaps conclude that the intellectual atmosphere in the brilliant Persian civilization of the time enabled open-minded searching and questioning of the basic tenets of one’s faith in a very much more liberal and tolerant way than what it is allowed in that region of the world today. One wonders, for example, whether Omar Khayyam’s original poem and Fitzgerald’s translation of it are available to the general public in Iran today, without being too sure of the answer ...

This poem, with its disenchantment close to agnosticism enveloped in a mist of eastern lyricism, had an enormous impact in 19th Century England and America, both on the general public - it was probably the best-known poem in the English language of the century - and on intellectuals such as Rosetti and the pre-Raphaelite circle, Ruskin, Swinburne and Morris.

Among the many later poets to be influenced by Fitzgerald’s version of The Rubaiyat was T.S. Eliot. A number of rather mysterious lines in his The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock gain added power and significance with understanding of their references to The Rubaiyat ; for example, Prufrock’s "among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me" (l. 89) very likely builds upon the key Rubaiyat stanza :

- 32 -
There was a Door to which I found no Key
There was a Veil past which I could not see ;
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seem’d - and then no more of THEE and ME.

And the haunting “But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” (l. 105), as well as the repeated phrase “In the room the women come and go” (ll. 13 and 35) bring to mind The Rubaiyat’s magnificent :

- 46 -
For in and out, above, about, below,
’Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

Another major Western intellectual to be influenced by The Rubaiyat was W. G. Sebald, who devoted a whole chapter to Fitzgerald in his superb The Rings of Saturn, where he retraces Fitzgerald’s life-wanderings in a spirit of almost devout respect and admiration.

The Rubaiyat was the only work ever published by Fitzgerald, a brilliant and eccentric (and very wealthy) graduate of Cambridge who was a close friend of a number of the leading intellectual and literary lights of his time, such as Thackeray, Carlyle and Tennyson. He did also write a two-volume study of the letters of Mme de Sévigny, but it was left uncompleted at his death and is today, unfortunately, quite unobtainable.

However, one great masterpiece that people will surely read and be enthralled by for ever is perhaps quite enough for any man !

We have thus seen that this is a work of quite exceptional lyrical beauty, a work that introduced a hitherto-unknown medieval Persian poet of startling originality of thought to the Western world, a work of art that has enchanted countless readers since its initial publication, a work that has influenced many intellectuals and writers of renown, a work where East meets West in a most unique and profound way.

But there remains a mystery to be resolved : why is this poem absent from the quasi-totality of English-language poetry anthologies ?

It is true that this work has always been seen as being elsewhere, an odd kind of beast that stands apart from the rest of the flock, deliberately so and indeed quite proud to be out there on its own. So, for example, it is usually published as first set out by Fitzgerald in a most striking Victorian way, with each four-line stanza on a separate page headed with an elegant flourish for the stanza number ; a presentation suggesting that of a sacred text or hymn book, perfectly suited to its contents but quite impossible to incorporate into the larger context of a poetry anthology.

Nevertheless, the question remains, as its exclusion from the anthologies does imply a relatively negative consideration of its value as a work of art.

The first explanation that comes to mind for its critical status, or lack thereof, is the poem’s immediate appeal to the mass public : as mentioned above, this poem had an enormous success in the 19th Century throughout the English-speaking world, which has to a certain extent continued through to our own less poetry-conscious time, and that is definitely not the way to win the hearts of the literary critics and academic experts who form the established opinion as to literary merit. Because of its general appeal, the work has to a certain extent been categorized as pandering to the masses, a quite unpardonable literary fault - which is really a bit much, when one considers its exotic origins and spiritual bent of mind.

Another possibility is that in our sceptical age the text’s quasi-religious questionings make us want to set it apart in a separate category of special-interest poetry, not really to be compared to secular works of more general interest. Which is ironical when one considers that Fitzgerald’s text was seen as openly and unpleasantly agnostic by devout Christians of his time, and was seized upon by anti-establishmentarians such as Swinburne precisely because of its iconoclastic attitudes to what was then established religion. And what is intrinsically wrong with religion as a valid subject for the finest poetry : just who is in a position to dictate what is proper material for a poet to meditate on and what is not ?

Now that the dust of the Victorian age has settled down and the anticlerical battles of a bygone age have been fought and won (in the West) ages ago, a more chilling prospect is that the text’s unorthodoxy, from a modern Muslim point of view, makes editors unwilling to include it in their volumes for fear of appearing provocative to believers of the true faith, and thereby incurring their wrath not to say boycott or worse.

But that leads us to other considerations which perhaps would be more appropriate in a “Politics/Polemics” section . . .

The full text of the original 1859 version of the poem can be seen elsewhere on this site.

[1the throwing of a stone into a cup or bowl was the signal for the hunt to get underway.

[2seven thousand years : the supposed age of the earth.