Monday, January 28, 2013


Omar Khayyam relaxing

In the mid nineteenth century the Englishman Edward Fitzgerald published a translation of selected poems or ruba’i’of the mathematician / poet Omar Khayyam. Subsequently Fitzgerald would go on to publish 4 more editions of selected ruba’i’.1 

Omar Khayyam was born on May 18, 1048 and died in 1131 C.E. He lived most of his life in the city of Nishapur, located in north Eastern Iran.2 Omar Khayyam along with being a noted mathematician was also an Astronomer and Philosopher who also taught. Several works by him have survived indicate that he was indeed a able mathematician and he helped to devise a calender.3  

Omar Khayyam lived at a time when the Seljuk Turks, steppe dwelling nomads were invading Iran and the Middle East and shortly before Omar’s birth they had occupied much of North Eastern Iran and were during his life time to have conquered most of Middle East, East of Egypt.4 

During this time period Persian was undergoing a Renaissance has a language of culture and learning. Persian had since the Arab conquest of the 7th century C.E., had been submerged by the new ruling Arab elite who spoke, wrote and administered in Arabic. Gradually, at least in Iran the still existing Persian aristocracy merged with the new Arabic one and basically Persianized it. The result was a new Persian Islamic culture. Omar Khayyam was part of this movement.5 

During his lifetime and for a while after there is little mention of Omar Khayyam writing poetry and in fact the first reference to Omar writing poetry is more than 40 years after his death and states that Omar was: 

…peerless in his time and without equal in astronomy and philosophy, so that he is proverbial.6 

Sadly though Katibu does not record Omar writing ruba’i’, in Persian but instead records a sample of poetry written in Arabic.7 It is only in the mid 13th century that records begin to written recording that Omar wrote anything like the ruba’i’. The result is that it is not clear which of the various verses attributed to Omar was in fact written by him. It also is clear that various verses not written by Omar were in fact attributed to him.8 

Another problem is the question of whether or not Omar Khayyam was a Sufi. Sufis were a diverse series of Islamic sects that pursued mystical and emotional ties to the divine. They were frequently considered heretics by conventional Muslims and many did indeed hold views that were considered very heterodox by the orthodox.9 It is not clear whether Omar Khayyam was in fact a Sufi although he was definitely considered heterodox by conventional orthodox thinkers.10 Further at least one Sufi thinker repudiated Omar.11 

In fact if, as seems to be the case, at least some of the ruba’i’ attributed to Omar Khayyam were in fact by him, then the materialistic, hedonistic, “Lets live for today!”, view point in the verses goes against both orthodox Islam and against Sufism. It appears that Omar Khayyam was a champion of Greek or “infidel” learning and that this is reflected in the ruba’i’, which in many ways show a point of view similar to Epicureanism. Epicurus and his school repudiated the idea of life after death, thought most philosophical questions a waste of time and believed that rational pursuit of pleasure was the best way.12 

Given what we know about Omar Khayyam is appears that some of the ruba’i’ attributed to him were in fact by him. Certainly they seem to agree with his philosophical outlook which was highly skeptical. 

A ruba’i’ is a poem in two lines each divided into two parts for a total of 4 parts. Each part is called a hemistich, which is a half line of verse. Each hemistich is followed and preceded by a pause or caesura. Now in the formula for a ruba’i’ the first, second and fourth hemistich must rhyme. The third does not have to rhyme. This formula gave plenty of room for short pithy verses.13 

Edward Fitzgerald when he translated the ruba’i’ translated each hemistich has a single line of a quatrain. He kept the rhyming scheme by having the first, second and fourth line of each quatrain rhyme.14 

Edward’s translation is not a faithful translation of the original Persian verses it is in fact remarkably free in many respects. Edward in fact made the original verses which were in fact both pithy, stark and blunt rather lush or shall we say “Victorian”. Despite this Edward was in fact faithful to the spirit if not the literal word of the verses.15 

The following are a few of Edward Fitzgerald’s translations followed by a more literal translation of the same verse. Edward Fitzgerald’s translation is not italicized. The more literal translation by Avery et al is.

For in the Market-place, one Dusk of Day,
I watch’d the Potter thumping his wet Clay:
And with its all obliterated Tongue
It murmur’d – “Gently, Brother, gently, pray!”16
I saw a man working on a building site,
He was stamping down the clay;
The clay protested,
“Stop it, you like me will be stamped on by many a foot”.17 
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.18 
I need a jug of wine and a book of poetry,
Half a loaf for a bite to eat,
Then you and I, seated in a deserted spot,
Will have more wealth than a Sultan’s realm.19 
The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-seventy jarring Sects confute:
The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.20 
Drink wine, it stops you thinking about the Many and the One
Dispels thoughts about the seventy-two jarring sects:
Don’t abstain, the physic you get
In one draught of it rids you of a thousand sicknesses.21 
And look – a thousand Blossoms with the Day
Woke – and a thousand scatter’d into Clay:
And this first Summer Month that brings the Rose
Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.22 
Happy sweetheart, at dawn
Sing a snatch and bring out the wine:
A legion of Krais and Jamshids have turned to dust,
But Summer’s on the way and winter is passed.23 
The Moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.24 
Oh Heart, since the World’s reality is illusion,
How long will you complain about this torment?
Resign your body to fate and put up with pain,
Because what the Pen has written for you it will not unwrite.25 
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter – the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.26 
That palace where Bahram took the cup in hand
The antelope has made its couching-place and the fox its earth:
Bahram who hunted the wild ass all his life,
See how the grave has hunted him down.27 
Ah Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!28 
If the firmament were in my hand as in God’s,
I would have razed it from the midst:
I would have made another firmament such that
The free of heart might easily attain their desire.29
You know, my friends, how long since in my House
For a new Marriage I did make Carouse:
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.30
Tonight I will make a tun of wine,
Set myself up with two bowls of it;
First I will divorce absolutely reason and religion,
Then take to wife the daughter of the vine.31
Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn
My Lip the secret Well of Life to Learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d – “While you live,
Drink! – for once dead you shall never return.”32 
In the Extremity of desire I put my lip to the pot’s
To seek the elixir of life:
It put its lip on mine and murmured,
“Enjoy the wine, you’ll not be here again.”33
And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass
And in Thy Joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one – turn down an empty Glass!
Tamam Shud34
[It is completed.] 
When you are in convivial company,
You must remember ardently your friend:
When you are drinking mellow wine together
And my turn comes, invert the glass.35 
The difference between the two translations is obvious. With Fitzgerald’s translation being rather lush and in many respects nowhere near a faithful translation although in the spirit of the original. The other translation gives a feel of starkness and bluntness and that is apparently much closer to the original poetry.

Meanwhile the actual poetry gives the vision of a man who it appears viewed life has fleeting, death as probable extinction and pleasure has something to be pursued in the meantime. 

In other words a melancholy hedonism. 

1. Untermeyer, Louis, Introduction, in Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Khayyam, Omar, Translated by Fitzgerald, Edward, Pocket Books, New York, 1941, pp. v-x. 

2. Avery, Peter, Introduction, in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Khayyam, Omar, Translated by Avery, Peter, & Heath-Stubbs, John, Penguin Books, London, 1981, pp. 9-41, at p.  14. 

3. IBID, pp. 24-25. 

4. IBID, pp. 14-17. 

5. IBID, Davis, Dick, Introduction, in Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, Ferdowsi, Abolqasem, Translated by Davis, Dick, Viking Books, New York, 2006, pp. 14-38. The Shahnameh was written shortly after 1000 C.E., and marks the beginning of the Persian cultural Renaissance. 

6. Isfahani, Katibu’l, quoted in Avery, p. 33. 

7. Avery, p. 33. 

8. IBID, pp. 33-41. 

10, IBID, p. 28. 

11. IBID, pp. 35-36. 

12. For an overview of Epicurus and his school see Green, Peter, Alexander to Actium, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1990, pp. 630. Note for an Epicurean pleasure was rational, reasonable and moderate. 

13. Avery, pp. 9-10. 

14. IBID. 

15, Avery, Peter, Note on the Translation, in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1981, pp. 42-43, Untermeyer. 

16. Khayyam, Fitzgerald Translation, No. 36, p. 72. Called hereafter Khayyam1. 

17. Khayyam, Avery et al Translation, No. 65, p. 63. Called hereafter Khayyam2.
18 Khayyam1, No. 11, p. 22. 

19. Khayyam2, No. 98, p. 71. 

20, Khayyam1, No. 43, p. 86. 

21, Khayyam2, No. 188, p. 93. 

22. Khayyam1, No. 8, p. 16. 

23. Khayyam2, No. 116, p. 75. 

24. Khayyam1, No. 51, p. 102. 

25. Khayyam2, No. 32, p. 54. 

26. Khayyam1, No. 17, p. 34. 

27. Khayyam2, No. 54, p. 59. 

28. Khayyam1, No. 73, p. 146. 

29. Khayyam2, No. 25, p. 52. 

30. Khayyam1, No. 40, p. 80. 

31. Khayyam2, No. 77, p. 65. 

32. Khayyam1, No. 34, p. 68. 

33. Khayyam2, No. 139, p. 81. 

34. Khayyam1, No. 75, p. 150. 

35, Khayyam2, No. 83, p. 67.
Pierre Cloutier

No comments:

Post a Comment