The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edward FitzGerald

Those of us who grew up seeing a lot of musicals probably always have a hard time actually deciding to read this book of verses.  As a result, I didn't know much about it except that it made a little movie play in my head.  So here's the background: Omar Khayyam was a Persian poet and scholar who lived nearly 1000 years ago.  He wrote a whole lot of verses in a quatrain format (of two sets of two lines each).  Edward FitzGerald then took and "translated" some of them, starting in the 1850s and continuing through the next 30 years to edit and change.  By "translated," I mean that he really did translate some, and a lot he sort of loosely transposed, and others it looks like he probably wrote himself in the style he wanted.

They don't come off as all that Persian, really, and most of it isn't love poetry either.  The verses do not hang together in a coherent whole or tell a story, but there is a sort of progression; FitzGerald wanders from the praise of wine (there is a lot of that) to a sort of fatalistic philosophy and meditations on the evanescence of life, with some proverby-sounding material thrown in here and there.  Some of the verses sound surprisingly atheistic for what they are supposed to be.

The verses were a huge hit and very influential.  I recognized many of the lines simply because they've been quoted so often.  Here's one that will probably be familiar:
"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."
Frontispiece: a loaf of bread and a jug of wine
My copy is a 1942 deluxe edition from the library at work, and attracted my attention because it's illustrated by Willy Pogany, who was one of the great illustrators of the first half of the 20th century.  You'll see his work in many collections of myths and tales from around the world.  He seems to have done two different sets of illustrations for the Rubaiyat, in color and in black and white, and mine is only in black and white.  The images here are not noticeably Persian in flavor any more than the verses are--they start off sort of 'exotic' and then become progressively more figurative, in an 'archetype of humanity' kind of way.

 I can't say that I enjoyed FitzGerald's version of Persian poetry, exactly, but it was certainly educational.  It's a perfect example of English fascination with the Orient and how texts would get transformed into an exotically-flavored amalgamation that was more English than anybody realized at the time.  Like kedgeree.  Or, earlier, the poems of Ossian if you see what I mean.  So while I wasn't much on the poetry, the history is pretty fascinating stuff.

And now I'm going to have to listen to something really catchy all day in order to get Mrs. Shinn out of my head...


  1. Ahahaha, my family quotes that bit of The Music Man CONSTANTLY.


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