The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Persian (1048-1123)
Omar Khayyám, son of Abraham, the tent maker, was born in Naishapur, Iran, almost a thousand years ago. He initially followed his father’s profession, but when he completed his education in Samarkand, he developed a lifetime passion for astronomy, philosophy, and algebra. Algebra? Oh, yes! We can thank Omar for our many sleepless nights when we fretted over his geometric methods to solve his cubic equation (x^3 + 200x = 20x^2 + 2000). He wrote treatises on music, mechanics, geography, and Islāmic theology. Omar also developed the Jalali calendar, one of the oldest and most accurate solar calendars still in use today. Apart from acknowledging his incredible contributions in various fields of study, we in the 21st century can enjoy Omar’s Rubáiyát, rhymes instructing us to live for today and not worry about the Hereafter. Omar was a realist, declaring, “I, myself, am Heaven and Hell.”
What is interesting is that Omar’s quatrains (short verses of four lines each) were never popular in his country. It was not until the 19th century that Edward Fitzgerald discovered the original, ancient manuscripts in England. FitzGerald’s friend, Edward Cowell, convinced him that there was a historical connection between Omar’s Persia and the Ireland of FitzGerald’s ancestors (Iran and Erin). FitzGerald identified with the forgotten poet, studied Persian, and painstakingly translated Omar Khayyám’s poetry into the beautiful verses we know today–no easy task. Here is an example of a translation by Justin Huntly McCarthy: “Every morn I shall say, this shall be the night of repentance….Yet now that the season of roses has come, set me free in the time of the Rose from repentance, O Lord of repentance.”
Here is how Edward FitzGerald translated the same passage, transforming it into a verse of sheer beauty. (Please read aloud.)
“Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore -but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My threadbare Penitence apieces tore.”
There is no comparison. Without Edward FitzGerald, the rich, emotional, and human interpretation of Omar Khayyám’s poetry would not exist. In Louis Untermeyer’s opinion, FitzGerald’s words transform the Rubáiyát “into lines that caress the ear with music the mind cannot forget….Separated by time, geography, and language, the two authors have become one poet: Omar-FitzGerald.” Here is another example. (Please read aloud.)
“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were a Paradise enow!”
FitzGerald printed several editions of the Rubáiyát during his lifetime; the second edition contained 110 quatrains. FitzGerald published his fourth version–in his opinion, his most polished–in 1879. What is interesting is that Edward FitzGerald did not want his name to appear in any publication. Of course, after he died, his name has been inextricably connected to Omar Khayyám’s. My personal copy of the Rubáiyát is a 1947 Random House publication, beautifully illustrated by Mahmoud Sayah, a fellow countryman of the poet. I do not shelve it with my other poetry books but keep it close by, dipping into it during a quiet, meditative moment. Khayyám’s poetry fills me with joy–pure joy!
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Sarah M. Fredericks © 2015
Carpe Librum! 📚 Seize the Book…and let the page-turning begin!