Tony Briggs looks back at Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
By Tony Briggs, Published: 6:00AM BST 18 Apr 2009
This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Edward FitzGerald, an outstanding writer who has done more than anyone to popularise English poetry. His best-known work, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859), began by being remaindered as a penny pamphlet, but it soon took off and swept across the world. To date it has appeared in 650 different editions, with illustrations by 150 artists. It has been translated into 70 languages and set to music by 100 composers.
More importantly, it has been enjoyed by thousands of readers, and has been memorised and widely quoted. A correspondent of mine recently described how his father learnt the whole poem, stanza by stanza, as a prisoner in a Japanese camp; another’s father did the same in a Rangoon outpost.
Learning this poem was nothing unusual then. Two generations ago every educated person could have continued from memory any of these lines from The Rubaiyat:
“Awake, for Morning in the Bowl of Night …
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough …
The Moving Finger Writes; and, having writ …
Myself when young did eagerly frequent …
Ah, Moon of my Delight that know’st no wane …”
But something has gone wrong. FitzGerald, far from being recognised as a leading poet, has been disregarded by the literary establishment. There could be several reasons for this. Has the poem proved too popular for its own good? Is it perhaps lightweight doggerel quickly seen through by experts? Does its origin (in translation) invalidate it as an independent work? Is The Rubaiyat affected by the way poetry is taught nowadays, with a ban on learning anything by heart?
None of these reasons has any validity. Laurence Housman saw the dangers of popular acclaim and worried that The Rubaiyat might be “acceptable to all but scholars and pedants”.
The academic world tends to be suspicious of anything that is widely enjoyed, which may be why there is no single monograph devoted to this poet. A recent study of English poetry ran to nearly 1,000 pages and 1,000 poets without even mentioning The Rubaiyat.
Let no one assume that the poetry of The Rubaiyat is of slender value and achievement. These verses are highly accomplished. The stanza alone, called rubai in the original Persian, is an astonishing innovation in English poetry. Who would have believed that the most common of all our poetic forms could have been reinvented as late as the mid-19th century?
Admittedly it is borrowed from another culture, but the asymmetrical quatrain, rhyming aaba, was adapted and individualised by FitzGerald. The last line (instead of completing the expected aabb sequence) loops back and adds another rhyme to the opening couplet, creating a frisson that sharpens the end of every stanza, even when you know it is coming. And the rhymes themselves are so discreet that it is easy to overlook how adept they are at not rhyming similar parts of speech.
FitzGerald’s poem is an elegant day-long meditation on life, death, happiness and the pleasures of imbibing. The carpe diem theme has never been more succinctly or movingly expressed than in this gem of a stanza:
“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
O Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
Note the unusual rhymes; note the list of essentials for paradise – poetry, nature, food and wine, company (including love and sex no doubt) and music – a more satisfying catalogue than the celebrity, riches and power that are the aspirations of today.
In addition to this, the poem stirs up a delicious blend of English in different forms: colloquial speech, archaisms, exclamations, asides, superb and exotic metaphors (some of them extended), direct speech, apostrophe, rhetorical questions, repetitions, lists, emphases, interjections, even typographical innovations. This bravura display is richer than anything in the scanty Persian originals; it identifies the poem instantly as the work of one man, the modest bard from Suffolk.
For decades the poem was bedevilled by the question of translation. FitzGerald was castigated for having distorted the original verses through ignorance. In fact, he was deliberately altering, combining and developing the verses of Omar Khayyam, a 12th-century poet who is remembered as a talented astronomer-mathematician, but not as a great Persian poet like Sadi or Hafiz. Many of the quatrains attributed to him have been falsely ascribed.
The best thing to do with Omar Khayyam is to acknowledge him as an invaluable source and then to leave the 19th-century verses to be judged in the context of English poetry.
It is we who have provided the Persian/Iranian nation with a literary celebrity of worldwide renown (whose “tomb” in Nishapur is now visited by thousands) rather than the other way round.
Another source of controversy surrounding The Rubaiyat has concerned their meaning. Are they a gentle call to hedonism in the face of our inexorable mortality? Or is the “wine” that is mentioned so frequently a symbol of divine love?
The answer is that these open-ended verses will support a metaphorical reading if that is what the reader wants.
But most people encountering the immortal lines,
“Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where”
will tend to take the remarks at face value. From these 20 monosyllables alone (including a neat chiasmus) you can see why A S Byatt has claimed that “FitzGerald’s verse is insidiously memorable. It sings in the mind.”
One mistake has been to link The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (also published in 1859 by a man born in 1809) and Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), and suggest that these three works together broke down religious certainty and ushered in an age of pessimism that is still with us.
We should leave FitzGerald out of this. His Rubaiyat is so gently resigned and beautifully amusing that there is no scale of pessimism on which it would register. Perhaps its deepest message is: “Make game of that which makes as much of thee.” When you read The Rubaiyat you are sure to remember it with a smile.
So where are we now? FitzGerald wrote some of the best-known and best-loved poetry in our language, the quality of which leaves its Persian origins far behind. Yet he is without honour in his own country. FitzGerald can be compared to Thomas Gray or A E Housman.
All three men were reclusive, melancholic, modest, conservative homosexuals, serious classical scholars and translators, and they all produced a single famous short work of poetry in quatrains, and little else.
Gray and Housman have been showered with honours and memorials, in Westminster Abbey and elsewhere, and celebrated in books.
FitzGerald, who has outsold and outcharmed them both, lies largely forgotten in a churchyard you will struggle to find.
This is not to say that FitzGerald is an unrecognised Shakespeare or Milton. But he is of a stature equal to that of a long string of acknowledged English poets of the second rank. The fact that he is not so accepted makes him the most seriously undervalued of all the English poets, and something should be done about it.
Let us hope for the solid acceptance of FitzGerald’s poetic achievement and, somewhere, a lasting memorial.
His reputation deserves better than to remain as tatty as his forsaken grave.
Tony Briggs has written the introduction to a new edition of ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, published by Phoenix at £5.99
‘It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves’
Edward FitzGerald is buried in the churchyard of the small, isolated Church of St Michael & All Angels, Boulge, Suffolk, England. (Follow the road from Bredfield to Debach and then turn left onto a concrete track). (See map…ref no. 24) His grave is situated next to the FitzGerald family mausoleum.
FitzGerald refused to live at Boulge Hall with the rest of his family and chose instead to live in a single story thatched cottage on the family estate for 16 years. He was a great friend of Alfred Tennyson.
Fitzgerald is mainly remembered today for his translation from the Persian of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. He first published it anonymously in 1859 and then enlarged it in subsequent editions in 1868, 1872 and 1879.
Fitzgerald made translations of other Persian works including: Bird Parliament by Attar and Salaman and Absal by Jami. He also made a selection of the work of fellow Suffolk poet George Crabbe.
He was married to Lucy Barton – the daughter of the Quaker poet Bernard Barton for a brief period, but the couple were unsuited. Lucy was extremely fussy while FitzGerald seldom shaved and was chronically untidy. After the collapse of the marriage he became friendly with a Lowestoft fisherman called Joseph ‘Posh’ Fletcher. The two men bought a herring lugger named the Meum et Teum but the venture soon collapsed due to Fletcher’s alcoholism and FitzGerald’s lack of business acumen.
FitzGerald died in his sleep at the Old Rectory at Merton in Norfolk while visiting George Crabbe – the grandson of the poet.
A clipping from a rose tree which grew on the tomb of Omar Khayyam at Nishapur in Iran (previously Persia) was planted at one end of Fitzgerald’s grave in 1893. Six more rose trees were planted around the grave in 1972.
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.
From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (complete poem)