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Book Review: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

By (July 5, 2016) No Comment

Nearer the Heart’s Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyatnearer richardson

by Robert D. Richardson

Bloomsbury, 2016

Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Introduction and Notes by Robert D. Richardson

Bloomsbury, 2016

A lovely and thoroughly enjoyable double-feature from Bloomsbury this summer: a new edition of the venerable Edward FitzGerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, complete with lavish illustrations by Lincoln Perry, and Nearer the Heart’s Desire, a slim, engaging dual biography of Khayyam and FitzGerald by Robert Richardson, biographer of William James and Henry David Thoreau, whose Emerson: The Mind on Fire was one of the finest biographies of the 20th century.

In his brief Introduction to the Rubaiyat volume, Richardson strikes a defensive note that might at first seem surprising in connection with a book that’s been translated into every known or theoretical language, adored and quoted from memory by tens of millions of readers in every country and culture in the world, and mined by Stan Lee for some of the most melodramatic issue-titles in all of Marvel Comics history. But on one level, Richardson is certainly correct: despite its cosmic levels of fame, there’s a hint of kitsch rubaiyatbloomsthat’s always clung to both the book and its celebrated translation:

FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat has been condescended to in a variety of ways. It is an impure or reckless translation, it is too popular, too easy to read and understand. It is too hedonistic, too blunt in its hunger to seize the day, too alcoholic, and a failure even at anonymity. But despite all this, it is great English poetry, and it has been recognized as such by Ezra Pound, E. A. Robinson, and T. S. Eliot.

Certainly nobody was more acutely aware of the idiosyncrasies of the FitzGerald version than FitzGerald himself; in the wake of his book’s gigantic popularity after its initial appearance in 1859 (the same year, Richardson reminds us, as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species), he was quick to offer the only real justification any translator can make for taking liberties with the original: “I suppose very few People have ever taken such Pains in translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But, at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s worse Life if one can’t retain the original’s better [life],” he wrote. “Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle.”

FitzGerald gets more biographical attention in Nearer the Heart’s Desire than Khayyam does, mainly due to the relative merits of their respective primary sources. Of earthquake-prone Nishapur, the town where Khayyam was born to a tentmaker in 1048, Richardson writes, “The world of Omar Khayyam is gone today, separated from us not only by nine centuries, but also by a long series of almost incomprehensible disasters both natural and man-made.” And of the poet himself, Richardson likewise concedes: “Any modern portrait of Omar Khayyam is going to be a little like Mark Twain’s description of the dinosaur in the museum: half a dozen bones and a dozen barrels of plaster.”

“Old Fitz,” born Edward Purcell in Suffolk in 1809, is a different story. A strained, brilliant, neurotic sentimentalist, he was a friend to Thackeray, Tennyson, Carlyle and many other literary lights of the day. And as Richardson observes, this scion of “Pickwick’s England” seemed at first an unlikely candidate for the immortality that would later claim him:

Edward FitzGerald grew up surrounded by bourgeois, genteel, conventionalizing forces, surrounded too by people who thought high living meant conforming to the social norms of high society. Nothing in FitzGerald’s childhood gives the slightest hint of the person he was to become; nothing links him to Persia or Persian poetry.

He eventually found key teachers, and his multifaceted passions eventually found their way to Omar Khayyam. And the masterpiece that resulted – quite correctly hailed by

artwork by Lincoln Perry

artwork by Lincoln Perry

Richardson not mainly as a great translation so much as a great work of English poetry – still speaks with its weird, dreamy directness, still beguiles the reading pause with aphoristic visions of lovely women, the brevity of life, and of course the many quiet glories of wine:

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare

Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?

A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?

And if a curse – why, then, Who set it there?

It’s a truism, of course, to say the present world, racked as it is by Islamic violence and bad news from Baghdad, needs Omar Khayyam (and Edward FitzGerald’s iconic introduction to him) more than ever. In reality, every age needs the Rubaiyat, and lucky the ones who have it.

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