(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 Beginning in the 1830s, FitzGerald wrote numerous poems and essays, nearly all of which went unpublished.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.