The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a poem by the 19th Century English poet Edward Fitzgerald which is a loose translation of several quatrains attributed to the 11th Century Iranian poet Omar Khayyam. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Charles Melville (University of Cambridge), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Kirstie Blair (University of Stirling), and they talked about both what is known about the original Persian verses and author as well as Fitzgerald’s version.
The programme started with Melville giving some brief context for Omar Khayyam. He lived in what is now Iran in the 11th Century AD, during the time of the Seljuk Turks. During his lifetime and in the initial period afterwards he was best known as a mathematician and scholar. He wrote an important treatise on geometry and was involved in revising the solar calendar so that it once again matched the seasons of the year. Melville said that this time period in Iran was a transition to a more conservative society and a return to the core values of Islam, and the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are out of step with this attitude. The first mention of Khayyam writing poetry comes 60 or 70 years after his death, as part of a denunciation of him as a heretic by holding up an example of a quatrain he supposedly wrote which contained heretical views. There isn’t actually any hard evidence that Khayyam wrote any of the quatrains associated with his name, but by the 15th Century there are manuscripts of collections of Persian quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. He may’ve written some of them, Melville explained that making up snippets of poetry was a sort of parlour game in the court circles that Khayyam moved in during his life. All three experts agreed that it was reasonable for Fitzgerald to believe that the manuscript he had contained at least a core of quatrains written by Khayyam and others that had later been attributed to Khayyam.
Edward Fitzgerald was a privileged member of the British upper class who lived in the 19th Century. His mother was one of the wealthiest women in the country, and the family took the Fitzgerald name because of a bequest from one of her relatives. He was educated at a public school in Bury St Edmunds, and went to Cambridge University at a time where he met people such as Tennyson. However he was also self-taught, and most of his knowledge of English literature & poetry came from his own wide reading. He is a sort of counter-example for the increasing professionalisation of writing and publishing during the Victorian period – self-taught, rather eccentric and wealthy enough to just publish his writing without needing to submit it to a publisher etc. Despite all his advantages he did not have a particularly happy life. His childhood wasn’t terribly happy, in particular his mother was rather distant. He didn’t marry young, and when he finally did marry it quickly became clear that it had been a terrible mistake for both parties. At around the same time his closest male friend, Cowell, went to India for two years and Fitzgerald felt abandoned – this was a time period (the 1850s) when there was a reasonable chance that Cowell would die in India. When Cowell left he gave to Fitzgerald a copy of a manuscript of Persian poems, the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and Fitzgerald flung himself into learning Persian and translating these poems.
The basic format of the original poems is that each is a standalone piece consisting of four lines, or perhaps two lines each of which is split into half. In the original Persian collections they are organised alphabetically based on the the last rhyme of each. One of the experts (Melville?) suggested that in some ways they occupy the same sort of cultural niche as limericks do in British verse (except without the expectation of them being rude, that limericks have). They’re short pieces with a defined format that you might expect people to just make up on the fly. As well as a particular meter they also have two possible rhyming schemes – one is AAAA (ie all four lines end the same way) and the other is AABA. Melville said that this is a traditionally Persian form of poetry, pre-dating the rise of Islam, and although it has this defined format it’s much less rigid and formal in structure than Arabic poetry.
Fitzgerald’s translation of these poems is definitely not a literal translation. To achieve it, first he had to learn Persian and then he translated the poems into medieval Latin. From there, he translated them into English. He also organised the quatrains he picked into a single poem made up of four line stanzas. This follows an overarching narrative of “the day of life” – morning (birth), noon and night (death). Something that’s present in the original and that particularly spoke to Fitzgerald is a sense of nihilism and of needing to take your pleasures in the here & now rather than hoping for better things after death. In his letters, particularly to Cowell, Fitzgerald expressed many scandalously atheist & nihilistic views – Blair reminded us that he’s writing this translation at the time that people are beginning to question the literalness & accuracy of Bible translations, and during the time when the Origin of the Species is being written. It’s probably those elements of the poems that Fitzgerald seized on about a lack of belief in the afterlife and a hedonistic approach to the world that are the same elements that were being cited as indicators of Khayyam’s heresy back in the 12th Century.
During the programme Melville (who works on Persian history) read out some of the original Persian poetry, so we got a feel for the rhythm and rhymes of the original. Karlin and Blair both read parts of Fitzgerald’s verse (they’re English literature academics) and discussed how Fitzgerald made the unusual rhyme scheme (to English ears) work with the poem, for instance in this stanza:
None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake!”
The third line with it’s non-rhyming end is the one talking about being awry and the whole quatrain is about this seeming awryness actually being done on purpose (as it is in the poem). Fitzgerald also wove into the poem a lot of allusions to other great works in the English language – including Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And that all gives it a richness and connection for an English reader that a more literal translation might lack.
Initially the poem was not a success – it sold only a single copy in its first year after publication. But this copy found its way to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who liked it, and once people heard of it via them then it became an incredibly influential poem. The experts were saying that a part of its popularity was in the way it embodied a decadent, hedonistic Orientalist view of “the East” that was appealing to the Victorians (I cynically think it’s so they could have their cake & eat it – get the pleasure of the poetry and of the images it conjures up whilst assuring themselves they’re better than that). Interestingly as the poetry became influential in Britain it sparked a revival in Iran – and Omar Khayyam is now more famous as a poet in Iran that ever before. In Britain after the Second World War there has been something of a drop off in popularity of the poem – Blair suggested this is in part because of a reaction by a new generation against something that was so popular in a previous generation. Blair and Karlin both said they don’t teach it at undergraduate level – in part because it’s so difficult to categorise. Is it a piece of 19th Century English poetry? But it’s heavily based on a Persian original. Yet how can you teach it as a work by Omar Khayyam, when it’s not really known whether it was by him and even if it was, Fitzgerald’s translation is so non-literal that you aren’t really looking at the original?
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.