The Ecphorizer

Notes of a Magaziner V
Paul W. Healy

Issue #17 (January 1983)



Most English and American readers are familiar with the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam only from the rendering (or "transmogrification," as he called it) of Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883). First published in a small quarto pamphlet in 1858, bearing only the publisher's name, it was quickly remaindered from its initial price of five shillings to the "cheap box" marked [quoteright'/>one penny each. It would be in the ten cent box today. But the book was purchased by Rosetti, Swinburne, and Sir Richard Burton; soon there was a demand for a second edition, and eventually for three more.

What these worthy gentlemen -- and most modern readers -- did not know was that the fifteenth century manuscript at Oxford which FitzGerald used was far from the earliest extant. As pointed out by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah in their book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a New Translation With Critical Commentaries (Cassell & Co., London 1967), "an authoritative twelfth century text was available to Sufic students in Afghanistan since shortly after Khayyarn's death 800 years ago."

A couple of examples from Graves and Ali-Shah will serve to show just how far FitzGerald departed from Khayyam's original poem:

"One of FitzGerald's most celebrated verses (58, First Edition) makes Khayyam adjure God to seek man's forgiveness:

O 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!

"Yet Khayyam's original verse (our 87) mentions neither Earth nor Eden, Snake nor Sin, and asks God for forgiveness without volunteering a similar courtesy:

You, always cognizant of every secret;
Who succors all flesh in its hour of need,
Grant me repentance, grant me mercy too -
You who forgive all, You who punish all.

"FitzGerald's verse 87 (our 89):

Whereat some one of the loquacious lot -
I think a Sufi pipkin - waxing hot -
'All this of Pot and Potter - Tell me then
Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?'

does not match the original, which contains neither Sufi nor pipkin nor any question of identity:

I saw at least two thousand pots last night
In Potter's Row, not all of which were mute,
And one cried loudly: 'Friends, where is the Potter
Where the salesman, where the customers?'"

FitzGerald was not above "borrowing" from other poets and including their verses in his Rubaiyat: the second and seventh quatrains (Third Edition) are taken, respectively, from Hafiz's seventh ode and Attar's Mantiq Taiyur. Finally, FitzGerald's most celebrated verse, "A Book of Verses underneath a Bough..." is actually a distorted condensation of two verses:

Should our day's portion be one mancel loaf,
A haunch of mutton and a gourd of wine
Set for us two alone on the wide plain,
No Sultan's bounty could evoke such joy.

A gourd of red wine and a sheaf of poems
A bare subsistence, half a loaf, no more
Supplied us two alone in the free desert:
What Sultan could we envy on his throne?

Only eight years after the Fifth Edition of FitzGerald's poem appeared, the Cosmopolitan (July and August, 1897) published "A New Rendering of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" by Richard Le Gallienne. It seems highly probable that the "rendering is no more accurate than FitzGerald's -- but that does not detract from its merit as poetry. Here is a sampler.

Oh, come, my love, the spring is in the land!
Take wine and bread and book of verse in hand,
And sit with me and sing in the green shade,
Green little home amid the desert sand.

Sweet cup of life no power shall fill again,
Thy juice goes singing through each gladdened vein
Drink, drink, my love - two mouths upon the brim,
Ah! drink, drink, drink each little drop and drain.

Of all my seeking this is all my gain
No agony of any mortal brain
Shall wrest the secret of the life of men;
The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;
If Allah be, he keeps his secret well
What He hath hidden, shall we hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?

So I be written in the Book of Love,
I have no care about that book above;
Erase my name, or write it as you please
So I be written in the Book of Love.

Mysterious mother-substance, who are they
That flout the earth that made them? Who are they
Who waste their wonder on the fabulous soul?
I can but choose to marvel at the clay.

This clay, so strong of heart, of sense so fine
Surely such clay is more than half divine!
'Tis only fools speak evil of the clay
The very stars are made of clay like mine. 

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Paul Healy




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