Although Edward FitzGerald was a friend of such writers as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Carlyle, FitzGerald himself published few works. His principal one was a translation of the rubáiyát (quatrains) of a twelfth century Persian mathematician-astronomer, Omar Khayyám. Barely noticed when it first appeared in 1859, the work became popular on both sides of the Atlantic soon after Dante Gabriel Rossetti found a copy of the book and urged his friends to read it. A second edition appeared nine years after the first, expanded from 75 quatrains to 110. FitzGerald continued to make changes in a third and fourth edition, finally reducing the work to 101 quatrains.
It is widely acknowledged that the poem is much more than a translation. FitzGerald freely adapted the original quatrains, adding many of his own images and giving disconnected stanzas a unity of theme, tone, and style. He stayed with the four-line stanza of the original Rubáiyát, rhyming on all but the third line, though in a few instances all four lines rhyme. The result, known as the Rubáiyát stanza, employs an iambic pentameter line (ten syllables, five of them accented) and is crafted so that the third line, FitzGerald explained, “seems to lift and suspend the Wave that falls over the last.” The final line usually gives the quatrain an epigrammatic force. FitzGerald also combined parts of some quatrains and arranged the whole collection into what he called “something of an Eclogue,” a poem with a rustic setting that uses dialogue or soliloquy. He also gave the poem a framework appropriate to its astronomer author, opening at dawn and ending at nightfall on the same day, when the moon rises and the narrator, who identifies himself along the way as “old Khayyám,” is no more.
The poem begins not only at the break of a new day but also on New Year’s Day, which occurred in Khayyám’s time at the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring. This season provides the poet with useful symbols—the grape, the rose, the nightingale, and the verdant garden—and the spring setting inspires the poet to ponder the mystery of creation, life’s brevity, the futility of trying to understand life’s purpose, and the wisdom of enjoying life while it lasts.
As the sun drives out the night, the poet bids his companion to rise and accompany him. This companion is addressed later as “Love” and is the famous “thou” whom the poet finds “enow” (enough) in the wilderness along with a book of verses and a loaf of bread. She acts as a foil to the poet’s meditations on their journey through the day, and this artful device gives the impression that the poet is addressing the reader as a familiar person. The narrator’s voice becomes the principal unifying element in the poem. By the eleventh stanza (in the first edition), the personal element is established, and one cannot resist the poet’s invitation to “come with old Khayyám.”
Eager to begin the day, the poet says he might hear a voice within the tavern chiding the drowsy ones for tarrying outside. He sees others waiting impatiently to enter the tavern, impatient because time is wasting and, when they are dead, they shall not return. The tavern, which symbolizes for the poet the world at large, is a place where one’s cup is filled with the “Wine of Life,” and one had better hurry to drink it, for the wine keeps draining away slowly. If the rose dies, others will take its place, the companion answers, implying that spring renews life, but the poet makes it clear that the rose symbolizes people who will be gone forever.
Put such thoughts away, old Khayyám urges, and go with him to the garden, where the names of kings and slaves are forgotten, where one can see, in the natural setting, images that teach how to enjoy the brief stay on earth. There, all the poet sees reminds him that life is short; everyone becomes dust and never returns. One is therefore well advised to live today and not worry about yesterday or tomorrow. In this verdant setting, the poet is reminded of the cyclic nature of life. Spring renews the earth, but the rose and the hyacinth are nurtured by the buried bodies of those who have come and gone. No one is exempt, not the...
(The entire section is 1732 words.)