Edward FitzGerald’s place in English poetry is based on his Rubáiyát of Omar Kháyyám. Despite this poem’s nominal status as a translation, it has long been recognized as an essentially original contribution to English literature. Whatever may be the merits of the original Persian poems from which the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám derives, the structure, diction, prosody, music, and movement of FitzGerald’s poem belong to the English language and to FitzGerald himself. Moreover, even the ideas of the poem are given a unity, force, character, and application that have much more to do with FitzGerald than with Omar Khayyám.
FitzGerald as “translator”
During his literary career, FitzGerald produced translations of Greek tragedies, Spanish plays, and Persian poems. In all these works, his approach is the same: He leaves out what he wishes to leave out. He conflates and changes originals as it suits him. He dresses the altered frames of his materials in his own highly personal style, and he emphasizes that which interests him and dismisses or changes that which does not. FitzGerald was always completely honest about this. When the publisher of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám spoke of the translation as being faithful, FitzGerald insisted that it was anything but that. In fact, FitzGerald always treated the works from which his translations derive as “sources” rather than “originals.” He was little more concerned with being faithful to Omar Khayyám than William Shakespeare was worried about being faithful to his sources.
FitzGerald’s freedom and originality in dealing with Omar Khayyám’s poetry may best be seen in the fact that there is actually no coherent work called the Rubáiyát written by the Persian poet. The word rubáiyát in Persian is simply the plural form of the word for short poem or epigram. What Omar Khayyám actually wrote—or was credited with—were roughly 750 individual short poems, each of which was a poem unto itself. Indeed, in Persian manuscripts, Omar Khayyám’s quatrains or epigrams are arranged merely alphabetically, based on the first letter in the first line of each quatrain poem. FitzGerald’s earliest version of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám contains 75 stanzas, while his last version contains 101 stanzas. In all five versions of the poem, Omar Khayyám’s epigrams have become true stanzas in a highly structured and unified whole. Thus, FitzGerald chose only those poems that he wanted to use and then imposed a unity on them that never existed in the original. Moreover, FitzGerald was very free with the original individual poems of Omar Khayyám. In his final Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, FitzGerald has 49 stanzas that roughly paraphrase actual Omar Khayyám poems; his other 52 stanzas are composites of more than one Omar Khayyám poem, or they do not derive from Omar Khayyám at all.
Themes and meanings
FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is a powerful meditation on and passionate questioning of the meaning of human life and the nature of the cosmos. For FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyám, the essential fact of life is life’s brevity. Human beings are surrounded by darkness and death. There is great pathos in this, but the shortness and essential sadness of human life make momentary joy all the more...
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