Omar Khayyam’s birthday.

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).

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Drinking Man’s Poetry: The Rubáiyát

Thanks to a meager, but curiously steady number of hits from around the world, I feel compelled to resume my blogging efforts. I know this is the age of Internet, but it is nevertheless thrilling to have my modest blog viewed by readers hailing from Spain, South Africa, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States… and that’s just today’s views.

I can’t sit idly by and neglect my international audience any longer! Forgive me, dear reader!

My passion is also renewed thanks to my discovery of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát. This is hardly a discovery; you can find this book everywhere. I know I’ve encountered it before, but for some reason it failed to take hold after an initial browsing — perhaps I dipped into the wrong translation.

There seems to be a consensus that Edward Fitzgerald’s version is the best available in English, though it is not the most accurate. According to the foreword of my edition,

“Fitzgerald left out a majority of the quatrains in the Persian collections, and his versions are very free renderings. He often invents lines, combines quatrains, and takes lines from other Persian poets. The Persian collections of the Rubáiyát themselves differ as to their contents, and contain verses that definitely weren’t written by Omar.”

— “The Quatrains of Omar Khayyám, Three Translations of the Rubáiyát”; translated by Justin McCarthy, Richard Le Gallienne, Edward Fitzgerald.

By the way, the Persian word for quatrain (that is, a four-line stanza) is rubái; rubáiyát is the plural.

But enough talk: what is the Rubáiyát — what are the Quatrains — about? We’ll get to Omar later. If I were to sum up his message, based on this afternoon’s reading, it is this: Life is short. Death is final. Fill your glass with wine!

If you are an alcoholic, I advise caution — These verses could trigger a relapse. Mr. Khayyám, inebriated with melancholy, has found in the Grape the best response to the riddle of existence. His thirst for answers have led him to the Tavern, where he intends to have his fill before Last Call:

‘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.

After this afternoon’s reading, I grow more convinced of my suspicion that modern poetry lacks vitality. This is memorable, timeless, meat-and-potatoes poetry, that despite some archaic words, would stir the soul of any man, no matter how simple or uneducated, because it addresses the pain of existence, instead of paining us with postmodern poetastery (Okay, that’s not quite a word). Khayyám is from the 12th century, Fitzgerald’s first edition was published in 1859.

But let me shut up, and offer you another round (stanzas 37 – 43, Fitzgerald, First Edition):

Ah, fill the Cup: — what boots it to repeat

How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:

Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday,

Why fret about them if To-Day be sweet!

 

One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,

One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste —

The Stars are setting and the Caravan

Starts for the Dawn of Nothing — Oh, make haste!

 

How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit

Of This and That endeavor and dispute?

Better be merry with the fruitful Grape

Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.

 

You know, my Friends, how long since in my House

For a new Marriage I did make Carouse:

Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,

And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

 

For “Is” and “Is-Not” though with Rule and Line,

And “Up-and-Down” without, I could define,

I yet in all I only cared to know,

Was never deep in anything but — Wine.

 

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,

Came stealing through the Dusk an Angel Shape

Bearing Vessel on his Shoulder; and

He bid me taste of it; and ’twas — the Grape!

 

The Grape that can with Logic absolute

The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:

The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice

Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.

 

boot (archaic) – to be of profit, advantage, or avail (to) “It boots thee not to complain.”
confute — to prove to be false, invalid or defective [to confute an argument]
trice – a very short time; an instant