Essay by Gary Sloan, Winter 2003

The Rubáiyát of Edward FitzOmar
an essay by Gary Sloan

Long ago, in the Protestant hinterlands of northeast Texas, four young infidels consecrated their bibulous souls to Omar Khayyám, the eleventh-century Persian astronomer, mathematician, and poet.  Each Saturday night in an old Studebaker, we made a pilgrimage to Hugo, Oklahoma, the nearest wet town, to procure libations of Ripple wine. As we meandered homeward on isolated back roads, we swilled the “old familiar juice.” Between swigs, we recited quatrains from The Rubáiyát, the bible for apostate tipplers. The mellifluous verse articulated our cosmic incertitude, alienation, and melancholy yearning. It also lent a romantic aura to inebriation.


Existential mysteries pricked us:

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

Theological patter availed naught:


Why, all the Saints and Sages who discussed
Of the Two Worlds so wisely—they are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scattered, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

In our salad days (the year before), we sought but did not find:


Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.

How ephemeral and insignificant our lives!


When You and I behind the Veil are past
Oh, but the long, long while the World shall last,
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As the Sea's self should heed a pebble-cast.

Had we omnipotence, we would do things right:


Ah love! Could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mold it nearer to the heart’s desire!

Ah, well.  “Better be jocund with the fruitful Grape / Than sadden after none, or bitter Fruit.”  Carpe diem, lads!  “Drink! For you know not whence you came, nor why: / Drink! For you know not why you go nor where.”

Long after the vinous lads had irrevocably scattered, I realized we had exalted the wrong poet. We should have offered oblations to the translator of The Rubáiyát, Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883).

FitzGerald brought the artistry of a demiurge to raw material supplied by Omar. In the Persian manuscripts FitzGerald consulted (called the Ouseley and the Calcutta), Omar's rubáiyát (quatrains) are arranged alphabetically, the sequence determined by the last letter of the rhyme word. The quatrains have no thematic center or progression. Each quatrain is a self-contained unit. By culling, combining, omitting, patching, and tinkering, FitzGerald conferred order on a welter of variegated musings. “He used Omar's detached thoughts,” said anthologist Louis Untermeyer, “and wove them into a design. Imposing continuity on the fragments, he achieved a unity the original never possessed.” For Bernard Quaritch, his publisher, FitzGerald sketched the narrative structure he devised: “Omar begins with dawn pretty sober and contemplative; then as he thinks and drinks, he grows savage, blasphemous, etc., and then again sobers down into melancholy at nightfall.”

FitzGerald wisely eschewed a literal translation. He imaginatively rendered (his word) Omar's thoughts into the idioms of English, sometimes creating his own metaphors, imagery, and allusions. Charles Eliot Norton, who introduced FitzGerald to American readers, said that “The Rubáiyát is the work of a poet inspired by the work of a poet; not a copy, but a reproduction, not a translation, but the redelivery of a poetic inspiration.” An early reader correctly surmised “that the beauties of Omar are largely due to the genius of the translator.” While many have translated Omar's verse (even Clarence Darrow, the Scopes trial lawyer, gave it a go), all seem poetasters beside FitzGerald. George Roe, a Persian scholar and translator, paid homage to his gifted predecessor:


“FitzGerald has, with the magic touch of genius, infused into the quatrains he has given us more of the spirit of Omar than all the other English translators combined. His work is full of music; he grasps the poet's meaning with marvelous intuition. With a magnificent disdain of the letter, he presents us with the kernel of the thought; and over the whole he throws the magic mantle of his own personality and talks to us in words that flow from the living depths of a poet's soul.”

Intermittently, FitzGerald worked on the poem for twenty-five years. Five editions, none exactly the same, were published--the first in 1859, the last posthumously. Few poems have been as often reprinted or as widely esteemed by both literati and ordinary readers. “No other poem,” said Alfred McKinley Terhune, Fitzgerald's biographer, “is seen so frequently in the meager libraries of those who make no claim to being either lovers of books or of literature.”  Some lines are famous: “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou”, “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on”, “The Flower that once has blown forever dies”, “Take the Cash, and let the Credit go”, “The Bird of Time has but a little way / To flutter-and the Bird is on the Wing.”

While conceding FitzGerald's brilliance, some Persian scholars allege that he misrepresented Omar. They contend Omar was a Sufi mystic, not the impious hedonist limned by FitzGerald. Omar scorned the hollow ritual, observances, anthropomorphism, and eschatological literalism of Muslim orthodoxy, they say, not the “true” Islam. According to Sufi belief, the soul was originally absorbed in God. Salvation lay in re-absorption. To achieve the reunion, one had to extirpate earthly desires and constraints.

To conceal their heterodoxy from repressive caliphs, Sufi poets adopted an esoteric symbolism wherein a beloved person represented God; wine, the love of God; and drunkenness, spiritual ecstasy. Omar, the argument runs, cloaked his mysticism in the occult symbols deployed by Hafiz, Attar, Jami, and other Sufi poets.

The truth may never be known. Two intractable difficulties arise.

First, no one has been able to establish a reliable corpus of Omar's verse. The known manuscripts, transcribed centuries after his death, are saturated with interpolations, excisions, and accretions. Of the 1,300 or so quatrains attributed to Omar, no one knows how many are actually his. Estimates range from 12 to 250. In A Literary History of Persia, E. G. Browne concludes: “While it is certain that Omar Khayyám wrote many quatrains, it is hardly possible, save in a few exceptional cases, to assert positively that he wrote any particular one of those ascribed to him.”

Second, no one really knows whether the rife allusions to wine and love are symbolic. Many sound literal. In evaluating a controversial 1967 translation of The Rubáiyát by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah, who pronounced the poet a devout Sufi, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement observed: “To prove Khayyám a Sufi involves the dangerous assertion that the poet does not mean what he says. If Khayyám is a Sufi, then an intelligible definition of Sufism is no longer possible.”

FitzGerald had no doubt Omar disdained Sufism as much he did. “Sufism is soon seen through,” he told his long-time friend Edward Cowell, the Persian scholar who had originally put FitzGerald onto Omar, “and always seems to me cuckooed over like a borrowed thing, which people, once having got, don't know how to parade enough.” In a preface to his translation, FitzGerald cited ancient reports that to his Muslim contemporaries, Omar was considered a bugbear: “His Epicurean audacity of thought and speech caused him to be regarded askance in his own time and country. He is said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose practice he ridiculed, and whose faith amounts to little more than his own when stript of its mysticism.”

FitzGerald twinned Omar and Lucretius, the Roman expositor of Epicureanism: “Both were men of subtle, strong, and cultivated intellect, fine imagination, and hearts passionate for truth and justice; who justly revolted from their country's false religion and foolish devotion to it.”

Omar's search for transcendent meanings led, FitzGerald opined, to an epistemological cul-de-sac. Finding no cosmic Legislator to ratify values, Omar pursued “sensual pleasure as the serious purpose of life, and diverted himself with speculative problems of Deity, Destiny, Matter and Spirit, Good and other such questions.” “Not that the Persian has anything at all new,” FitzGerald told bibliophile William Donne, “but he has dared to say it, as Lucretius did.”

FitzGerald may have suited Omar to his own persuasion. Though a member of the Anglican church, this maverick scion of nobility kept his own counsel. He preferred Lucretius, Montaigne, Voltaire, Diderot, and Hume to Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther. His Holy Communion comprised ample stoups of port and offertories with convivial literati like Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Visited late in life by a rector determined to edify the wayward parishioner, FitzGerald was peremptory: “Sir, you might have conceived that a man has not come to my years of life without thinking much of these things. I believe I may say that I have reflected on them fully as much as yourself. You need not repeat this visit.”

Versed in science, Biblical criticism, and history as well as the arts, FitzGerald was not so much unwilling as unable to believe. “FitzGerald is best classified as an agnostic,” wrote Alfred Terhune. “Although he could not personally find satisfactory answers to the problems of the soul and man's relation to the Creator, he respected others' solutions to these enigmas.”

In Omar Khayyám, FitzGerald descried a soul mate. “I take old Omar rather more as my property than yours,” he told Edward Cowell. “He and I are more akin. You see all his beauty, but you don't feel with him the way I do.” At sixty, FitzGerald signed a letter “Edward FitzOmar.”

One of FitzOmar's rubai reads:


Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and-sans End!

In 1959, the advice sounded good to four teenagers headed to Hugo.

Still does.




© 2003 Gary Sloan

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