December 15, 2017

Edward Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyam

On this day in 1809 Edward Fitzgerald was born, and on this day in 1859 his "free translation" of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was published. Fitzgerald's version of the 12th century Persian verse became one of the most popular works of the 19th century and one of the best-selling books of poetry ever. Some say that its religious skepticism had an impact on Victorian England equivalent to Darwin's The Origin of Species, also published in 1859.

In his day, Khayyam was known less as a poet than as a philosopher, astronomer and mathematician -- and today is still so known, for his work on cubic equations and binomial theory. He was often in disfavor with the orthodox Muslim government in his native Persia, and many quatrains in the Rubaiyat (the word means 'quatrain') make it easy to see why:
    Make the most of what we yet may spend
    Before we too into Dust descend;
    Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
    Sans wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and -- sans End!

    Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
    The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
    The Bird of Time has but a little way
    To fly -- and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
How such celebrations of the earthly pleasures became a cult and then a craze in Victorian England and America is an engaging publishing story. Edward Fitzgerald was rich, reclusive and odd, a man isolated by temperament and homosexuality, and nicknamed "Dotty" by his local villagers. He was friendly with Thackeray, Tennyson and Carlyle, but "as far aloof from the ordinary activities of the literature of his day as his life was remote from that of the world in general" (Cambridge History of English and American Literature). He lived the sort of life which could find him, one summer's day in 1857, "in a Paddock covered with Butterflies and brushed with a delicious Breeze," reading a friend's penciled transcript of a Bodleian Library manuscript of an obscure, 700 year-old Persian poem, pleasantly absorbed in turning it first to "Monkish Latin," and then to rhymed couplet English. Two years later, he had a 250-copy first edition printed privately, the translator left anonymous. These sold so poorly at a shilling that they were soon in the publisher's discount bin at a penny. They were found there by an acquaintance of, and so sent to, Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Rossetti bought copies for Swinburne and Browning; Swinburne bought copies for William Morris and George Meredith (the price now risen to 2 pennies). By 1863, John Ruskin was begging the anonymous translator "to find and translate some more of Omar Khayyam for us...more - more -please more"; by 1868 Charles Eliot Norton was promoting a second edition (still anonymously translated) to a receptive America; by the turn of the century, a teenaged T. S. Eliot would happen "to pick up a copy of Fitzgerald's Omar which was lying about," and get such an "almost overwhelming introduction to a new world of feeling" that he "wished to become a poet." Thomas Hardy so liked the atheistic spirit in one quatrain that he had it read to him on his death-bed:
    Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
    And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
    For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
    Is blacken'd, Man's Forgiveness give -- and take!

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