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Friday, February 01, 2013

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald

This week's post is another in a series adapted from papers on Rosenbach objects written by our wonderful new class of docents.

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Interior of front cover of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the astronomer-poet of Persia. Translated into English verse. Edward Fitzgerald, trans. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1859. EL3.F553r859

Part translation, part creation, part nihilistic vision, and part joyful celebration of nature and wine, English scholar and translator Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam is a widely influential work from the Victorian period. The work is typically described as a translation of poems attributed to twelfth-century Persian mathematician and scholar Omar Khayyam, but whether The Rubaiyat as we read it in English is a translation, a retelling, or something in-between, has often been debated. Whatever its definition, The Rubaiyat is a stunning work of poetic revision, popular since the Victorian era, and still influential today.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the astronomer-poet of Persia. Translated into English verse. Edward Fitzgerald, trans. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1859. EL3.F553r859

To define The Rubaiyat as a translation is not altogether accurate; in fact, the original work may not even be entirely authored by Omar Khayyam. The Rubaiyat is actually a collection of four-lined verses called rubai, often referred to as quatrains in English verse. The rhyme scheme of these Persian verses follows an aaxa pattern, though some verses stray from this scheme. The English translation by Fitzgerald focuses on one complete day in which Omar Khayyam wakes up, contemplates life and death, drinks, and describes the experience of being alive. (This concept may seem familiar to Rosenbach fans, as we have another famous, influential work in our collection along these same lines…)

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, rendered into English verse. Edward Fitzgerald, trans. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1872. EL3.F553r 872

Fitzgerald probably first encountered a “complete” rubaiyat attributed to Khayyam in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. His translation of the Persian rests in the Victorian traditions of revision and interpretation. Victorian authors and translators often concerned themselves more with their interpretations of literature written in other languages rather than accuracy, and Fitzgerald is no exception. He sometimes described his rubaiyat not as a translation but as a “rendering” of the original work. He also revised his own work continually.

Front cover of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the astronomer-poet of Persia. Translated into English verse. Edward Fitzgerald, trans. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1859. EL3.F553r859

In fact, Fitzgerald produced four editions of The Rubaiyat in his lifetime, and a fifth was published posthumously. You can compare the text of these different editions at therubaiyat.com. We have several editions at the Rosenbach: a first edition from 1859, a third edition from 1872, and a fourth edition from 1879, all published by Bernard Quaritch. We also have two autographed prints of stanzas from The Rubaiyat signed by Fitzgerald, which exemplify the popularity of the poem during Fitzgerald’s lifetime. Along with these are two notes: one with a suggested translation for Fitzgerald and one from Fitzgerald declining a different suggestion, with the admissions that he was both “painfully aware of [his] limitation” in the translation while still battling “the inclination to adjust and amend." It's no wonder Fitzgerald produced so many editions of this text!

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and the Salman and Absal of Jami.  Edward Fitzgerald. trans. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1879.EL3.F553 879

Though The Rubaiyat holds an important place in Victorian culture and literature, and was immensely popular after a time, it was not an immediate success. The first edition sat for so long at Quaritch that it ended up in the penny box before finally being noticed by Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Soon after the Pre-Raphaelites celebrated the poem, it rose in popularity. Today, The Rubaiyat is still widely available in print—so widely available that some copies cost less than three dollars on Amazon. Though not the most talked about poem in literature today, The Rubaiyat shows no signs of disappearing from the literary canon, nor from our collection.



Ivy McDaniels is a member of the Docent Training class 2012 and currently a docent apprentice. Her love of English Literature drew her to the Rosenbach’s collections




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