Study Guide

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

by Edward FitzGerald

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám Essay - Critical Essays

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Astronomer Poet of Persia, Edward FitzGerald

Introduction

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Astronomer Poet of Persia Edward FitzGerald

The English translation and revision of an eleventh-century Persian poem by Omar Khayyám.

The following entry provides criticism on Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Astronomer Poet of Persia (1859; revised in 1868, 1872, and 1879).

FitzGerald's Rubáiyát (1859; revised in 1868, 1872, and 1879) is a lyric poem consisting of 110 quatrains (four-line stanzas). The original Rubáiyát was composed of discreet rubái, or four-line poems, and FitzGerald refashioned this by selecting 110 of them and arranging them thematically into a whole. FitzGerald's translation preserves the original poem's aaba rhyme scheme, a traditional Middle Eastern rhyme scheme that is very unusual in Western poetry. The poem depicts a simple man who finds solace by escaping into material pleasures, and treats the universal and ageless themes of doubt, fear, and regret.

Biographical Information

FitzGerald was born to a distinguished family of Irish heritage on March 31, 1809, at Bredfield, near Woodbridge, in the Suffolk area of England. When he was seven, the family moved to France, returning to England two years later upon the death of his maternal grandfather, and his mother's resulting inheritance of several estates. After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1830, FitzGerald, an amiable, self-effacing and retiring young man, lived quietly, and modestly, possibly in reaction to an upbringing marked by luxury. He was a prolific letter-writer, corresponding regularly with such close friends as William Makepeace Thakeray and Alfred, Lord Tennyson—both of whom he met at Cambridge—and Thomas Carlyle. Beginning in the 1830s, FitzGerald wrote numerous poems and essays, nearly all of which went unpublished. His Euphranor, a philosophical dialogue, was published in 1851, followed by Polonius, an anthology of quotations, in 1852. FitzGerald began studying Spanish ballads and drama, and his translation of six dramas by Pedro Calderón de la Barca was published in 1853. It is, as are all of FitzGerald's translations, a very liberal reworking of the original. At the encouragement of his friend Edward Byles Cowell, a multilingual scholar, FitzGerald began learning Persian. In 1856 FitzGerald's translation of Jāmī's allegory Salámán and Absál was published. That summer, Cowell, just before moving with his wife to Calcutta, India, discovered a manuscript of Omar's Rubáiyát at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. At the time, Omar was renowned in his native land (now Iran) as a brilliant scientist and, somewhat less so, as a poet. His poetry was essentially unknown in the Western world. Cowell copied the manuscript to show FitzGerald, who proceeded to translate it, corresponding with his friend, now in Calcutta, for advice. Cowell disapproved of the liberties that FitzGerald would take in the translation process. FitzGerald's Rubáiyát, translated anonymously and published in 1859, went virtually unnoticed until discovered by Dante Gabriel Rossetti the following year. As its success modestly grew, FitzGerald felt compelled to revise it three times; these editions were published in 1868, 1872, and 1879. By the third edition, he was known to be the anonymous translator. FitzGerald had begun to translate Greek drama; his Agamemnon was published in 1865 and his version of Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus appeared in 1880-81. But he is known primarily for his Rubáiyát, which became immensely popular in the late nineteenth century, after FitzGerald's death in 1883.

Plot and Major Characters

FitzGerald's Rubáiyát spans one day, from dawn until dusk. As morning breaks, the narrator of the poem is contemplative. He reflects upon the transience of all things, and contemplates man's inability to comprehend or influence destiny, but finds enjoyment in the material pleasures of life. The narrator, who views hedonism—particularly in the form of drinking wine—as the cure for man's ills, is accompanied by a Saki, or wine-pourer, and imbibes throughout the day. In a humorous section of several stanzas referred to as the “Kuza Nama”, animated clay pots ponder and discuss the mysteries of their existence, and then become quiet in anticipation of being filled with wine. The narrator, continuing to brood, is moved to anger by thoughts of the indifference of God, imagining that life is like a chess game in which people are mere pawns of destiny, with God looking on but not caring about the outcome of the game. As the day progresses into evening, the narrator associates his fading youth and eventual death with the approach of darkness.

Major Themes

In the Rubáiyát, the sequence of a day acts as a metaphor for the passage of time. The poem extols the hedonistic pleasures of food, sex, and wine, and the importance of living for today, because the future is uncertain and life is fleeting. It contemplates the riddle of life and expresses mankind's doubts, regrets, and fears. Written during a time of religious upheaval—its first edition was published the same year as Darwin's Origin of Species—the poem's questioning of religion and traditional morality was both shocking and fascinating to its readers.

Critical Reception

FitzGerald's original compositions, as well as the majority of his translated works, were poorly received by his contemporaries. The Rubáiyát went virtually unnoticed for a year after its publication, until Rossetti stumbled across it in a bargain bin, and the poem became admired by him and fellow Pre-Raphaelites for its refreshing impiety and sensuality. Upon the publication of the poem's second edition, American Charles Eliot Norton wrote a highly laudatory review of FitzGerald's translation of the poem, and indicated that he preferred FitzGerald's version to another recently-written, and more faithful, translation of the poem. Some critics faulted the Rubáiyát for many of the same flaws of style and tone perceived in FitzGerald's earlier works, but most hailed the translation as a lyrically beautiful original creation and praised FitzGerald's reorganization of Omar's quatrains as a stylistic change that retained the poetic spirit of the original. The work became so popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that, according to critic Daniel Schenker, it lost some of its “artfulness” and did not receive very much scholarly study. Modern critics who have written about the Rubáiyát echo the assessments of earlier critics, and additionally comment upon the poem's wide-ranging influence.

Principal Works

Euphranor: A Dialogue on Youth (dialogues) 1851; revised 1855

Polonius: A Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances [editor] (aphorisms and quotations) 1852

*Six Dramas of Calderón, Freely Translated [translator] (plays) 1853

Salámán and Absál [translator; from Salámán and Absál by Jāmī] (allegory) 1856; revised 1871

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Astronomer Poet of Persia [translator] (poetry) 1859; revised editions, 1868, 1872, and 1879

Agamemnon: A Tragedy Taken from Aeschylus [translator] (play) 1865

The Mighty Magician and Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of: Two Plays Translated from Calderón [translator] (play) 1865

Readings in Crabbe: Tales of the Hall (poetry) 1879

The Downfall and Death of King Oedipus. 2 vols. [translator; from Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles] (play) 1880-81

Letters and Literary Remains of Edward FitzGerald. 3 vols. (letters, poetry, and dialogues) 1889

Letters of Edward FitzGerald. 4 vols. (letters) 1980

*Includes The Painter of His Own Dishonour; Keep Your Own Secret; Gil Perez, the Gallician; Three Judgments at a Blow; The Mayor of Zalamea; and Beware of Smooth Water

Criticism

Charles Eliot Norton (review date October 1869)

SOURCE: Norton, Charles Eliot. “Nicolas's Quatrains de Khèyam.North American Review 109, no. 225 (October 1869): 565-84.

[In the following review, Norton compares the second edition of FitzGerald's Rubáiyát with J. B. Nicolas's version, finding that though the two versions agree in their literal meaning, Nicolas interprets the original poem as laden with spiritual metaphor, while FitzGerald interprets it primarily at face value, as sensual and hedonistic. Norton commends FitzGerald's version, particularly for bringing freshness to the poem through his liberal translation style, and assesses Nicolas's more exact translation as “dry.”]

The...

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Hugh Walker (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: Walker, Hugh. “The Turn of the Century: New Influences.” In The Literature of the Victorian Era, pp. 444-526. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910.

[In the following excerpt, Walker praises FitzGerald's Rubáiyát for capturing the essence of the original better than any other (more faithful) translation of it.]

There is no man in recent literature more difficult to ‘place’ than Edward FitzGerald. His position is unique. Professedly only a translator, he was in reality an original poet as well, ranking, in respect of power, after only a very few of his contemporaries. “An eccentric man of genius,” it was his whim or his peculiarity to...

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John W. Draper (essay date October 1963)

SOURCE: Draper, John W. “FitzGerald's Persian Local Color.” Philological Papers 14 (October 1963): 26-56.

[In the following essay, Draper suggests that FitzGerald added numerous details of local color to the Rubáiyát because he was restyling the poem into an eclogue. Draper analyzes these additions, and maintains that they adhere to Persian scenery and customs.]

For his English version of the Rubáiyát of ‘Umar Khayyám (d.1124?), FitzGerald used two late and widely differing manuscripts: the Bodleian (1460-61) with 158 quatrains, and the Calcutta, an undated and ill-written Indian text, with 516. The more authentic Cambridge manuscript (1207)...

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John D. Yohannan (essay date spring 1971)

SOURCE: Yohannan, John D. “The Fin de Siècle Cult of FitzGerald's ‘Rubaiyat’ of Omar Khayyam.” Review of National Literatures 2, no. 1 (spring 1971): 74-91.

[In the following essay, Yohannan suggests that the immense fin de siècle popularity of the Rubáiyát was due to its existential angst, which corresponded with the diminishment of religious faith in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and also due to its accessibility, as a brief and “middlebrow” poem.]

A translated Persian poem, which was Edward FitzGerald's consolation against a melancholy life, became—even in his own lifetime—a literary fad in both England and America....

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Iran B. Hassani Jewett (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Jewett, Iran B. Hassani. “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.” In Edward FitzGerald, pp. 73-111. London: George Prior Publishers, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Jewett compares FitzGerald's Rubáiyát to its source, maintaining that the original contains greater variance in theme and mood, and more humor, while FitzGerald's version contains more vivid imagery, as well as more action and movement.]

FITZGERALD'S VERSION OF THE RUBáIYáT

FitzGerald's Rubáiyát—the “Epicurean Eclogue” as FitzGerald once described it—follows a pattern that is lacking in the original. By their very genre, Omar...

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Daniel Schenker (essay date spring 1981)

SOURCE: Schenker, Daniel. “Fugitive Articulation: An Introduction to The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.Victorian Poetry 19, no. 1 (spring 1981): 49-64.

[In the following essay, Schenker discusses the Rubáiyát's metaphorical devices and its garden setting, suggesting that its readers found it an appealing escape into an exotic and amoral, but still somewhat secure, world. Schenker suggests that the poem became overly familiar and popular and that this resulted in a decline in scholarly interest in and analysis of the work.]

Over a half century ago Ezra Pound remarked that FitzGerald's re-creation of Omar Khayyám was one of the finest works...

(The entire section is 7363 words.)

Vinnie-Marie D'Ambrosio (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: D'Ambrosio, Vinnie-Marie. “The Possession” and “Parodying Omar at Harvard.” In Eliot Possessed, pp. 3-7, 89-128. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpts from two chapters in Eliot Possessed, D'Ambrosio maintains that FitzGerald's Rubáiyát profoundly influenced T. S. Eliot's works, particularly “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”]

[“THE POSSESSION”]

Because the reputation of the Rubáiyát has lain at its nadir for some fifty years, the poem's impact on Eliot, or on anyone, has not seemed to be a probable subject for serious consideration.1 Its effect,...

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Tracia Leacock-Seghatolislami (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Leacock-Seghatolislami, Tracia. “The Tale of the Inimitable Rubaiyat.” In Edward FitzGerald's The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 195-207. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.

[In the following essay, originally published in 2000, Leacock-Seghatolislami outlines the positive and negative effects of FitzGerald's liberal translation of Khayyám's Rubáiyát.]

It is difficult to decide where to start with the Edward FitzGerald-Omar Khayyam debate, because so much has been written, it deserves its own library. Of course, most of the debate has been focused on decrying FitzGerald's liberal rendering of Khayyam. This essay...

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Erik Gray (essay date autumn 2001)

SOURCE: Gray, Erik. “Forgetting FitzGerald's Rubáiyát.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 41, no. 4 (autumn 2001): 765-83.

[In the following essay, Gray studies the ephemeral qualities of the Rubáiyát, suggesting that in both its structure and content, it is an exhortation to forgetting, and is well remembered partly because, paradoxically, its various editions obscure it.]

Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám constantly advises the reader to forget—preferably with the help of a drink: “Ah, my Belovéd, fill the Cup that clears / To-day of past Regret and future Fears.” And again—“Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden...

(The entire section is 7610 words.)