There are many books weighing down my bookshelves into soft, drooping curves, but not many of them have the privilege of tenure. Only a handful have travelled with me for more than a couple of decades; a small selection of tomes that are read, perhaps infrequently, but more than once, and still manage to speak to me every time.
Most of my books have, over the years, been donated to libraries or sold to bookstores, to make room for the new ones always crowding in and demanding attention. Those that have escaped the culling so long are ones that mean the most to me. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of them. You may know it for this memorable verse:
“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.”
1st Translation: 51
Khayyam was a Persian mathematician, philosopher and astronomer. He wrote between 1,200 and 2,000 quatrains (depending on which researcher is counting.). He lived from around 1048 CE to 1122 CE.
I first encountered the Rubaiyat when I was in my pre-teens. I can’t recall today whether it was one of those gems buried on a public library shelf that I found (I waited in the library after school for my father to come home from work and collect me), or if it was among my father’s books I found tucked away on a bookshelf at home. Either way, it stuck with me. Since then, I’ve owned several editions of it. Two sit cheek-to-jowl on my shelves today.
“‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.”
1st translation: 49
Edward FitzGerald, a reclusive and somewhat odd scholar, first translated the collection of stanzas from the ancient Persian in the mid-1850s. Seventy-five of the quatrains were published anonymously in 1859. It took almost ten years for it to become well-known.Today it stands as one of the greatest works of English poetry.
“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.”
1st Translation: 51
I wasn’t aware, at the time when I first found it, that there were several translations of the book, and that the number of verses and their order would change in each (starting from 75 in the first to 110 then reduced to 101 in the last three, but because he replaced some, the total unique verses in all editions is 114).
FitzGerald continued to work at his translation, adding and subtracting verses, from his original, re-ordering and tweaking the wording right until his death. Four versions were published in his lifetime, and a fifth was published after his death, based on notes he left behind.
My copies include a 1951 reprint of the first translation, with the stunning B&W illustrations by Edmund Sullivan reproduced. The other is a 1963 reprint of a 1947 edition, with the first, second and fifth translations, colourfully illustrated by cartoonist Robert Sherriffs. Samples of both are in this post.
While later translations may represent an improvement in the translator’s art, for me the first is still the best. It was the one I first discovered, the one I carried with me while hitchhiking around the country in the 1960s, and the one that still moves me most today. However, I find some of the later versions are sometimes slightly better, slightly more powerful or smoother. That’s why it’s good to have several editions.
For example, verse 7, above is rendered thus in the subsequent editions:
“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter – garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.”
2nd-5th translations, verse 7
Which doesn’t strike as quite as lovely, or poetic as the first. I don’t like the change from “the” to “your” in the second line because it personalizes what I see as a more universal sentiment.. And I really don’t think the bird of time should “flutter,” which seems less potent and more random than “fly.” “Fly” scans better, too.
Fitzgerald’s work is overall, however, magnificent, beautiful, and problematic (it even spawned many parodies). It reflects the best of Victorian literary aspirations; flowery and rich without being saccharine, deep without being stodgy or moralizing, readable in whole or in part. It is rich in imagery and symbolism. His chosen rhyming scheme makes it easy to read and memorize – the AABA scheme has even been called the “Rubaiyat” method.
The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, on reading the Rubaiyat:
‘Like a sudden conversion – the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours’
However, it is not really very accurate, at least by today’s standards of translation. It’s certainly not literal. In fact, it may be considered more an interpretation than a translation. Wikipedia notes:
“…as a translation of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains, it is not noted for its fidelity. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to any one of Khayyam’s quatrains at all. Some critics informally refer to the FitzGerald’s English versions as “The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar”, a nickname that both recognizes the liberties FitzGerald inflicted on his purported source and also credits FitzGerald for the considerable portion of the “translation” that is his own creation.”
Fitzgerald himself recognized this, and wrote in a letter to a friend and fellow scholar:
“My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is.”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58)
Later he would write to the same friend,
“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”
(letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59).
Scholars have reacted differently to FitzGerald’s work; some with scorn, others with understanding praise:
“…FitzGerald was faithful to the quintessence of the poetic message communicated by Khayyam: that while taking well-deserved liberties with the original text, he recreated the original poet’s message in forms and metaphors more familiar to his Victorian audience -hence his incredible popularity in literary circles of his time. The ‘Wine of Nishapur’ in this sense represents the intoxicating essence of the Quatrains of ‘Umar Khayyam, the fiery way of beauty and wisdom imbibed in Persian by Edward FitzGerald, then outpoured again in Victorian cups of charm and grace.”
FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat can be read in many different ways: as a long poem with an overarching theme; a series of short poems with loose thematic connections; aphorisms about life and meditations on morality and mortality (like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius); a religious commentary (in particular a Sufi or Islamic manifesto); a non-religious spiritual guide (like a Persian Bardo Thodol but through life, not the afterlife), an intellectual exercise in translation, or in interpretation (like Witter Bynner’s or Ursula Leguin’s editions of the Tao Teh Ching), or as randomly chosen thoughts for today (like I Ching verses).
No matter how you approach it, it is both beautiful and potent, even more than 150 years later. The Telegraph noted that, by its 150th anniversary in 2009, Fitzgerald’s version had been printed in “650 different editions, with illustrations by 150 artists. It has been translated into 70 languages and set to music by 100 composers.”
Since FitzGerald (yes, he capitalized the G), many other writers have attempted to translate the verses into English and other languages. Whether they have equalled or surpassed FitzGerald’s efforts, is a personal choice. As Wikipedia notes, the tone of the translation depends on one’s own personal philosophy:
The nature of a translation very much depends on what interpretation one places on Khayyam’s philosophy. The fact that the rubaiyat are a collection of quatrains – and may be selected and rearranged subjectively to support one interpretation or another – has led to widely differing versions. Nicolas took the view that Khayyam himself clearly was a Sufi. Others have seen signs of mysticism, even atheism, or conversely devout and orthodox Islam. FitzGerald gave the Rubaiyat a distinct fatalistic spin, although it has been claimed that he softened the impact of Khayyam’s nihilism and his preoccupation with the mortality and transience of all things. Even such a question as to whether Khayyam was pro- or anti-alcohol gives rise to more discussion than might at first glance have seemed plausible.
FitzGerald himself seems to have been somewhat of a fatalist, or nihilist, albeit gently so. He grew increasingly disenchanted with Christianity, and eventually gave up attending church. His own outlook on mortality and the fleeting nature of life is evident throughout all of his versions, but it’s far from a pessimistic work.
The Rubaiyat.com compares versions by five translators (Fitzgerald – four editions – Brodie, Talbot, Sadie and Whinfield; Brodie is an ‘anagrammatic paraphrase’ of FitzGerald).You can also compare the first, second, fourth and fifth FitzGerald translations, as well as the Whinfield at Arabiannights.org.
It’s fascinating to compare how others have turned the original into their own words.It’s even fascinating to see how Fitzgerald himself struggled to refine the verses. For example, in his first translation, Fitzgerald wrote this:
“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.”
1st translation: 11
In the second edition, this became:
“Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
2nd translation: 12
For the third to fifth editions, this became:
“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
3rd-5th translations: 12
As the Rubaiyat.com shows, this is sometimes represented by more than one verse, depending on the translator:
“Some wine, a Houri (Houris if there be),
A green bank by a stream, with minstrelsy;—
Toil not to find a better Paradise
If other Paradise indeed there be!
In the sweet spring a grassy bank I sought,
And thither wine, and a fair Houri brought;
And, though the people called me graceless dog,
Gave not to Paradise another thought!
Give me a skin of wine, a crust of bread,
A pittance bare, a book of verse to read;
With thee, O love, to share my lowly roof,
I would not take the Sultan’s realm instead!
So long as I possess two maunds of wine,
Bread of the flower of wheat, and mutton chine,
And you, O Tulip cheek, to share my hut,
Not every Sultan’s lot can vie with mine.
Whinfield, verses 79, 84, 452, 479
If in the Spring, she whom I love so well
Meet me by some green bank – the truth I tell –
Bringing my thirsty soul a cup of wine,
I want no better Heaven, nor fear a Hell.
Whether my destin’d fate shall be to dwell
Midst Heaven’s joys or in the fires of Hell
I know not; here with Spring, and bread, and wine,
And thee, my love, my heart says “All is well.”
Give me a scroll of verse, a little wine,
With half a loaf to fill thy needs and mine,
And with the desert sand our resting place,
For ne’er a Sultan’s kingdom would we pine.
Let Fortune but provide me bread of wheat,
A gourd of wine a bone of mutton sweet,
Then in the desert if we twain might sit,
Joys such as ours no Sultan could defeat
Talbot, verses 25, 40, 149, 155
Others translate it into a single verse:
A Poem, and Trees a-blowing in a Wind.
A Brew I’ll drink — base Needs of other Stuff
Ignore. Ah see here how we do behave;
Indeed for us a Song is just enough.
Brodie, verse 12
Ah, would there were a loaf of bread as fare,
A joint of lamb, a jug of vintage rare,
And you and I in wilderness encamped –
No Sultan’s pleasure could with ours compare.
Sadie, verse 16
You can read all of FitzGerald’s various editions, as well as at least half-a-dozen others online. But I recommend instead that you get a print version. It’s the sort of book you will want to read on a Sunday afternoon, over a glass of wine, or just before bedtime, when you can ponder each verse in the quiet of the night. Besides, every home library should have a copy. It’s one of those books, like Shakespeare’s collected works, you should not be without.
I try to read it, if not always in one sitting, at least in its entirety, every few years. It’s always worth the time to do so.
“Whether at Naishápúr or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.”
2nd translation, verse 8
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- Speaking time: 1140s