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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 1 page 01


Edward FitzGerald's translation of
the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam

by Ian Allaby

Edward FitzGerald’s particular late 19th-century translation of Omar Khayyam’s verses (the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) is a classic of English literature. In presenting FitzGerald’s work anew here, I have updated some of his language and I hope I have made a few verses clearer to the modern eye and ear. At the same time, I left many of the most-quoted parts intact or almost intact.

From our perspective today, all his talk of wine and love makes FitzGerald (1809-1883) seem an oddity in supposedly straightlaced Victorian-era England. It was in the study of Persian poetry that he discovered his true inspiration, and outside of his translation of Omar Khayyam’s work FitzGerald was not much notable as a writer. His version of the Rubaiyat no doubt contains as much of his own personality as it does of Khayyam’s. In any case, FitzGerald’s approach was to attempt to be true to the spirit of the original work without necessarily adhering to the words as written.

Omar Khayyam was born at Nishapur (in northeast Iran) in 1047 or 1048 AD (by the European calendar) & died in 1122. In Khayyam’s day, Nishapur rivalled Cairo or Baghdad economically and culturally — it was a stop on the Silk Road, the trade route linking the Far East to Europe. Today, Nishapur is a relatively minor city. Khayyam’s tomb is one of a handful of local tourist sights.

The name “Khayyam” signifies a tent-maker — Omar may have been a tent-maker’s son. He came eventually to be a master mathematician and astronomer. His Treatise on the Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (1070), laying down the principles of algebra, was part of the body of Persian knowledge that, traveling westward, helped pull Europe out of its Dark Age. His writings may have introduced to Europe the idea of x, as in x=unknown, which we now use routinely in such expressions as X-factor or Camp X.

Omar constructed a map of the stars that was famous across the Islamic world. He and a few fellow scientists, at the invitation of the sultan Malik Shah, built a celestial observatory and introduced several reforms to the Persian calendar. Their revised calendar remained in effect in Iran into the 20th century.

It is as a poet, however, that Omar Khayyam is most remembered. In his own time, his poetry was condemned by religious officials. They must have found Omar’s relentless skepticism and live-for-today epicureanism difficult to reconcile with the message of Islam, the predominant religion in Persia in those times and ever since.

Omar may have produced as many as a thousand original four-line verses — his quatrains or rubaiyaas. The exact number is hard to know since many duplications and alterations crept into his work as it passed from scribe to scribe. Fitzgerald used just 101 of the quatrains in the fifth edition of his translation (1879), and of those I have retained just eighty. Brief notes on the text are indicated by asterisks in the right margin.

For those readers who are not familiar with them, or who have not looked at them for some time, I hope this presentation will help draw attention again to both Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald.