#153. THE BIG BIG D. In 1859 a small and anonymous book was published in England, presenting the translated quatrains of an eleventh-century Persian poet-astronomer: RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM. (“Rubaiyat” is the plural for “rubai,” a hemistich couplet we translate as a quatrain.) The book was at first unnoticed, and started heading for the penny boxes in the London bookstalls; but it was discovered and then noised around by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne and the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes. The book’s popularity grew and grew and kept on growing, until it became one of the household books of Victorian Britain; it was eventually claimed by its translator, Edward FitzGerald, who revised it several times, and it has survived, to be endlessly reprinted and republished, illustrated, parodied, quoted, anthologized and granted classic status. Echoes of it have snuck into movies, plays, novels, and into writers ranging from O. Henry and Isaac Asimov to Daphne du Maurier and Jorge Luis Borges. D. W. Griffith wanted it as a basis for a film that never got made; Arlo Guthrie set several of its verses to music. It ended up going almost literally everywhere: an elaborate and jewel-decorated copy designed by the great English bookbinders Sangorski and Sutcliffe was being shipped to an American collector, but went down with the Titanic and is still down there at the bottom of the sea, presumably the worse for wear. (Sangorski himself drowned shortly afterward; a second copy of “The Great Omar” was made, placed in a bank vault and destroyed during the Blitz; a third copy is now in the British Library.)
Fitzgerald made no secret of his having translated the verses very freely, and there have been dozens of other versions in English, but it was FitzGerald’s version that called Khayyam to the world’s attention, and “everywhere” can be pressed to mean its innumerable translations into Polish, Slovene, Cornish, Afrikaans, Telugu, Scots, Sureth, Galician, Odia and (my personal favorite) Frainque Le Maistre’s translation into Jerriais, assuring that the Channel island citizens of Jersey and Sark would not have to do without Omar the Tent-Maker’s somber wisdom.
Perhaps inevitably, though, FitzGerald’s extreme freedom in translation and the period tone of his version have opened a space for new, more exact and careful study of Khayyam, directly from Persian sources, and a version more contemporary in style. Khayyam was known in his day as a mathematician and astronomer; he constructed an observatory in Isfahan and worked on reforming the Persian calendar. (“Tent-maker” is only FitzGerald’s translation of Khayyam’s last name.) His poetry is all of posthumous attribution; he may not have written any of the many poems ascribed to him, and the manuscript evidence is all late. The philosophy behind the poems has been a subject of much confusion: he was fobbed off onto the Sufis, who responded by writing elaborate interpretations that turn the poems on their heads, or by simply rejecting him, as did both Shams Tabrizi (Rumi’s spiritual guide) and Attar, who described him with an audible shudder as “not a fellow mystic, but a free-thinking scientist.”
Frankly, I’m with Attar. Nothing could be further from Rumi’s profound and watchful mysticism than Khayyam’s voluptuously mordant little verses. Khayyam’s great theme was death. There is hardly a poem in the entirety of whichever version you read of the Rubai’yat that does not center on death as a spur to wine, women and song, with a loaf of bread tossed in. If you drink, you drink from a vessel made of the dirt of the dead. Philosophy comes to no certain conclusions: “Who’s been to hell, who’s been to heaven?” “The season of roses, the brook’s edge, the margin of the field” are all lovely and all poignantly brief. Wine and romantic sex (Khayyam is never brutal) are easements of our sorrow, then “The wind of death untimely / Rips open the mantle of our life.” Our present-day culture, tied obsessively to profit, dislikes the mention of death; a book I read on the difference between English people and Americans suggests that the primary difference is that English people know they’re going to die. So once again the best new version of Khayyam is by two Englishmen, Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs, from Penguin Classics. They have striven for accuracy, and arrived at a simplicity that convinces me more than FitzGerald’s Victorian fluency. Khayyam’s vision may not be of the grandest: the Buddhist teacher Shantideva, for instance, looks around and sees himself surrounded by people who, in another incarnation, had once been his mother, and are worthy of compassion and reverence. Khayyam sees no further than death; but none of us can see further than that without the aid of metaphysic and belief. Perhaps this is the curious source of the pleasure of Khayyam’s biting, luxuriant little poems: they are a kind of philosophical ground zero. They are the “song,” as in “wine, women and song” (which, someone recently joked, is the nineteenth century version of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll”). In the face of our grand intellectual and religious constructs, Khayyam invites us to relax and come off it. Let us sit on the ground, he says, and pass the bottle around and be easy with each other. Whatever arguments you may have prepared: they aren’t going to last that long. Neither are you.
His fame is still traveling. Appropriately to this poet-astronomer (and perhaps oddly for a poet who so rarely looked up), a lunar crater was given his name in 1970, and in 1980 the minor planet 3095 was discovered and named Omarkhayyam by the Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Zhuravlyova. I like to think of it floating out there in the literary heavens, somewhere in the vicinity of Asteroid B 612, with its occupant who knew so much of melancholy himself.