Today (Sunday) is the birthday of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, the original author of the Rubaiyat, a work that became immensely popular in the West because of the poetic achievement of Edward Fitzgerald, a wealthy British gentleman who did not accurately translate the words so much as faithfully channel the spirit of Khayyam into English verse. As Fitzgerald himself acknowledged, it is a “rendition” rather than a translation.
Khayyam himself possessed prodigious talents beyond poetry. As a medieval mathematician, he wrote a famous treatise on algebra, and as an astronomer he helped develop a highly accurate Iranian calendar. He inherited his title from his illiterate father, whose occupation — “Khayyam” — means “tent-maker.”
Today I went to BookPeople, a well-known bookstore in Austin, where his work was absent from the shelves. It seems Rumi has displaced him as the most fashionable Persian poet (in the U.S., at least), although I do find Khayyam in used bookstores.
According to The Wine of Wisdom, the Rubaiyat became “a household name from the 1870s to the 1950s.” In WWI, soldiers carried copies of it into battle. Its appearance was well-timed: with its jabs at religion, it appealed to a new secular way of thinking, and its association with the Victorian conception of the East — a place of exotic, romantic sexiness — captured the public’s interest.
There is more than one Omar Khayyam — that much is clear. He’s a polymath and a partier. A thinker and a drinker. Though he’s had dining clubs named after him, his Epicurean image overshadows his contributions as a scientist, mathematician, and philosopher.
Here’s a BBC video about him, which delivered a shock when it featured a visit to Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, which houses a large collection of Rubaiyat-related items (skip to the 33:25).