FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat is one of the glories of English poetry. It has contributed more phrases and common quotations to the language, relative to its size, than any other piece of literature – including the Bible and Shakespeare. “A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou”… “The Moving Finger writes; and having writ // Moves on”… and so on.
FitzGerald came out with five editions of the Rubaiyat (the fifth being posthumous), with 75 four-line stanzas in the first edition, then tinkering with it for the rest of his life: adding another 30 stanzas, subtracting again, and constantly modifying words, phrases and punctuation. The first edition has several things in its favour: succinctness, and the fire and integrity of the original effort.
Edward FitzGerald was a strange character. His personal life was a long search for friendship of two types: intellectuals with a passion for literature (Tennyson, Thackeray, Carlyle), and unintellectual men much younger than himself who were noted for their “manly” looks. His life and search were difficult, as Victorian England didn’t make life easy for homosexuals.
On the creative side, this search for friendship showed up as a need to be a co-creator: showed up in art, where he had a lifelong habit of buying paintings and cutting them down to a better composition and touching up the work to improve it; in music, where he arranged the works of others for his friends to sing; and in literature, where he found his genius in the works of others, translating Aeschylus, Calderon and Khayyam from the original Greek, Spanish and Persian, striving to identify with the original author and replicate in English not their exact words but the thrust of their thought and emotion. And with the Rubaiyat he appears to have been successful in every way. The five versions published between 1859 and 1889 constitute the single best-selling book of poetry in English.
Of the hundreds of editions that have been published since FitzGerald’s death, my two favourites are: for the lushness, the one illustrated by Edmund Dulac; and, for the background and insights, the one with an introduction by Dick Davis and published by Penguin in 1989.
In this particular Penguin edition (there have been several others), FitzGerald’s first edition and fifth edition are given in full, together with a complete listing of all the other variations found in the intervening versions. But – FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat only being 300 or 400 lines, depending on the version – all of that barely takes up 50 pages. Dick Davis’ introduction, almost as long, was presumably commissioned to make this a saleable book. And it is his introduction that gives it its full value.
Davis covers the life and what can be known of the personality of Omar Khayyam and – in conjunction with a review of FitzGerald’s life, personality, agnosticism and guarded homosexuality – the attraction, almost identity, that FitzGerald felt for him. He also investigates and approves the depth of FitzGerald’s translation skills, and analyses his use of rhyme scheme and meter. FitzGerald originally started translating Khayyam into paired couplets (aabb) before seeing the benefit of Khayyam’s rubaiyat (aaba) – given the epigrammatic nature of the verses, each quatrain is a stand-alone philosophic proposition and the return in the fourth line to the rhyme of the first two lines tends to heighten the sense of inevitability in each stanza.
Perhaps the most intriguing thought to come from Davis’ Introduction is that the sensual illustrations of half-naked women, so common in our collection of Rubaiyats, are all wrong. From linguistic and cultural clues in both the Persian and the English, it appears that the Saki, the young cup-bearer, the Thou of the flask of wine and book of verse, should be an attractive young male with his first moustache starting to grow in. In other words, and despite my preference for Dulac, FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam would perfectly support lush, ornate, gay illustrations; and that is likely what FitzGerald – and Khayyam himself – would have preferred.