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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1732

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...

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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 hero, the sultan, or Caesar himself.

The poet’s skepticism regarding the usefulness of learning is brought to light as he recalls how little he learned from “Doctor and Saint.” All he learned from them is that the individual has no control over his or her existence. One is but a pawn in the hands of a seemingly whimsical Creator. In this way, the individual is no different from nature’s abundant manifestations: the rose, water, and wind. Although humans can reason, compute, ask questions, and seek causes, reason cannot penetrate the veil that separates the living from the dead. Futile is the search for life’s purpose and futile is the hope for existence in the afterlife—if, indeed, there is an afterlife. All the poet learns is that wine is the best antidote for reason’s inability to see into the darkness.

Wine offers the hedonist a quick escape from a meaningless life, but the grape also, for old Khayyám, symbolizes nature’s abundant resources and, as such, offers a way of escaping into life, abandoning the arid, futile speculations of saint and Sufi (mystic). The tavern is a haven in which the weary traveler may find respite from the knowledge that life is brief and one is doomed to join those countless numbers who sink beneath the earth, never to return. Grimly, the poet sees that humans are like bubbles in the wine that the Eternal Saki pours, desert travelers in a Phantom Caravan.

Reminded of his own intellectual abilities and accomplishments, the poet dismisses their significance. Though he can calculate and use logic, he abandons reason and puts his faith in wine, which is all in which he was ever rich. This potent liquid confutes warring sectarians and transmutes life’s base metal into gold. The only certainty, the poet discovers, is that life is brief and once one is dead, one is dead forever. Heaven and hell are within the individual, who is in the hands of an unknowable master. Using his reason to refute reason’s power to understand the meaning of existence, old Khayyám explains that it is absurd to think that the individual is punished in heaven for being made imperfect or expected to repay God in “pure gold” for an existence that was “dross-alloyed.” It is equally absurd to think that God will sue to collect a debt from one who has no part in making the contract.

These thoughts remind the poet of an earlier experience, a dream or a fantasy, in which he finds himself in the house of a potter surrounded by pots of all shapes and sizes, a loquacious lot that has the same concerns many humans have, the purpose of their existence, why some are misshapen and others are not, and who the Potter is. These vessels, it seems, were made to hold wine, the spirit of life, and they eagerly await the winebearer. They, too, come to the same realization as old Khayyám: Wine enables one to endure a life of unanswered questions. The poet acknowledges that his devotion to the potion tarnishes his reputation. He even repents, but when spring returns, his penitent spirit vanishes, and he returns to the grape.

The plaintive voices of the vessels bring to mind once again the vanishing rose, youth, and spring itself, and though spring will return, one day the poet will not. This melancholy thought makes him wish he could spring forth from the ground like the harvest, rewrite what Fate has written for him, or obliterate Fate altogether. Addressing his companion, he says that if they could re-create the world, they would surely mold it closer to their hearts’ desire. The passage of time, however, is inexorable. Often, he says, the moon will wax and wane, returning again and again. On one of those rounds, in the darkness of night while other guests are “star-scattered on the grass,” it will be discovered that he is gone.

The day’s journey from morning to evening, from the bedchamber to a pleasant garden, is also a journey through the mind of a philosophical poet pondering the mystery of human existence. In the lush garden that reminds him of nature’s poignant beauty, of creation, and of the remorseless finality of death, the poet cannot find a satisfying, rational answer to his questions. Answers, if they exist, lie beyond the power of human reason. Impatient with the explanations of others, the poet concludes that it is best simply to live for today and drink oneself into oblivion.

Wine, the tavern, and intoxication, however, have symbolic value for the poet. In one sense, the tavern represents the world at large and includes the garden to which the poet and his companion journey. Wine, representing life itself or the spirit, impels one, not from life but into it. Commitment to the grape represents commitment to living intensely in the moment, becoming intoxicated by the spirit of life. In that state, one becomes oblivious to those questions that baffle saint and doctor alike. One escapes from the world of futile rationality into a world of sensory awareness.

FitzGerald considered Omar Khayyám a “material Epicurean,” yet FitzGerald’s translation suggests that Khayyám offered something beyond a refinement of life’s pleasures, beyond a refined enjoyment of wine, women, and song. Without pushing the symbols too far, one could find the rose to be more than a dying flower that reminds one of life’s brevity and the wine to be more than a temporary escape into oblivion. Clearly, old Khayyám of the quatrains sees in the rose a beauty that sustains life and reminds one of that nature that restores and enriches. Clearly, too, he sees the tavern as a metaphor of the larger world of nature, and he believes, finally, that the power of wine to intoxicate is the individual’s only and best reward.

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