Revered in eleventh-century Persia as an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, Omar Khayyam is now known first and foremost for his "Ruba'iyat". The short epigrammatic stanza form allowed poets of his day to express personal feelings, beliefs and doubts with wit and clarity, and Khayyam became one of its most accomplished masters with his touching meditations on the transience of human life and of the natural world. One of the supreme achievements of medieval literature, the reckless romanticism and the pragmatic fatalism in the face of death means these verses continue to hold the imagination of modern readers.
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 Paradise enow!
However famous though, Fitzgerald's version famously took many liberties. The translation I have on my shelves is by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs, and purports to be as faithful as possible to the original. So the lines above are rendered:
If chance supplied a loaf of white bread,
Two casks of wine and a leg of mutton,
In the corner of a garden with a tulip-cheeked girl,
There'd be enjoyment no Sultan could outdo.
The Avery/Heath-Stubbs version has the reputation of being more restrained, and I think that's captured in the two quotations. Actually, that does make me want to seek out Fitzgerald's version, even if it's more romantic Victorian than true to the original. But the Avery/Heath-Stubbs was the version through which I became acquainted with this poetry, and I found it beautiful. I picked it up because The Ruba'yat was on a list of "100 Significant Books" in Good Reading only to find myself entranced. It's a very slim volume of 104 pages of 235 quatrains.
What attracts me to FitzGerald's rendition is the beauty of his language, particularly in the first edition, and his ordering of the verses to develop themes (perhaps beyond what Khayyám intended? I'm not scholar enough to know for sure). FitzGerald/Khayyám building effects by re-presentation of the concepts of the impermanence of life; the fleeting nature of human existence; the sadness inherent in mortality; the essentially unknowable fate of us all, despite what the "two-and-seventy jarring sects" might say; the logic (that seems the right word, Khayyám being a mathematician, and FitzGerald a student of Greek philosophy) of living in the moment; the consolations of a right good piss-up (this last I might have blasphemously expressed if some interpretations of Khayyám are accepted).
I've no doubt myself that Khayyám was an atheist, notwithstanding claims that there is an underlying Sufi spiritual message in his poetry, though my belief is, admittedly, based upon a rendition of his works by a Westerner stepped in a Christian tradition, even if that tradition was one he ultimately rejected (not to avoid mentioning that I am an atheist myself, so possibly inclined to such a reading of the verses). I find something deeply human about this, looking to ourselves for meaning, or even an acceptance of being in a meaningless universe from which we are required to carve our own temporary meaning if we are to live as persons, even for so brief a time as we have to experience it. I feel in this a connection with Khayyám, though aware that it is mediated through FitzGerald. I've read a literal translation of Khayyám, which did not touch me so deeply. Perhaps it was the more direct phrasing and lack of a distinct thematic thread that I found lacking, or that I was distracted by trying to figure out which quatrains were the basis got FitzGerald's versions. I should read the direct translation again, I think, without the rose-tinted spectacles.
Initially, I wasn't taken: the verses were stark and plain for the most part, and there was no real connection between one quatrain and the next. But I persevered and as the memory of FitzGerald receded somewhat, I was able to enjoy the poems on their own terms. The humour and beauty of the "originals" (as close as a non-Persian speaker can get to the originals, anyway) shone through and won me over.
It was fun, too, to recognise some old friends in new clothes.
The translators' fascinating introduction and appendices were worth the price of the book by themselves, enhancing enjoyment of the verses by giving some context.
I guess I still prefer FitzGerald's translation because it's the one I've grown up with, but I will definitely revisit this edition, too.
On happiness in the now:
“Go for pleasure, life only gives a moment,
Its every atom from a Kaikobad’s or a Jamshid’s dust;
The world’s phenomena and life’s essence
Are all a dream, a fancy, and a moment’s deception.”
“These few odd days of life have passed
Like water down the brook, wind across the desert;
There are two days I have never been plagued with regret for,
Yesterday that has gone, tomorrow that will come.”
“It is we who are the source of our own happiness, the mine of our own sorrow,
The repository of justice and foundation of iniquity;
We who are cast down and exalted, perfect and defective,
At once the rusted mirror and Jamshid’s all-seeing cup.”
“I was asleep, a wise man said to me
‘The rose of joy does not bloom for slumberers;
Why are you asleep? Sleep is the image of death,
Drink wine, below the ground you must sleep of necessity.’”
“Though you may have lain with a mistress all your life,
Tasted the sweets of the world all your life;
Still the end of the affair will be your departure –
It was a dream that you dreamed all your life.”
On the passing of youth:
“When we were children we went to the Master for a time,
For a time we were beguiled with our own mastery;
Hear the end of the matter, what befell us;
We came like water and we went like wind.”
On drinking wine:
“Oh heart you will not arrive at the solving of the riddle,
You will not reach the goal the wise in their subtlety seek;
Make do here with wine and the cup of bliss,
For you may and you may not arrive at bliss hereafter.”
“Drinking wine and consorting with good fellows
Is better than practicing the ascetic’s hypocrisy;
If the lover and drunkard are to be among the damned
Then no one will see the face of heaven.”
“I drink no wine, but not because I’m poor,
Nor get drunk, though not through fear of scandal;
I drank to lighten my heart
But now that you have settled in my heart, I drink no more.”
“What have you to do with Being, friend,
And empty opinions about the notion of mind and spirit?
Joyfully live and let the world pass happily,
The beginning of the matter was not arranged with you in mind.”
On the transience of life, wow I love this one:
“Every particle of dust on a patch of earth
Was a sun-cheek or brow of the morning star;
Shake the dust off your sleeve carefully –
That too was a delicate, fair face.”
As well as this one:
“The globe is the image of a ball compacted of our bones,
The Oxus, a trickle of our distilled tears;
Hell is a spark from our consuming torrents,
Paradise, a moment from our space of reprieve.”