THE ENGLISHING OF 'OMAR KHAYYÁM
Ah, Moon of my Delight who know'st no wane,
The Moon of Heav'n is rising once again:
How oft hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me – in vain! (74).
Nobody knows if Omar Khayyam, the great Persian mathematician and astronomer, ever composed this or any of the thousand or more rubáiyat, poetic quatrains, attributed to him. Perhaps like some of his contemporaries in 5th-6th century AH (11th- 12th century CE) Persia, he was in the habit of tossing off a pithy epigram at the end of his lectures by way of conclusion.
Scholars now think the overwhelming number of quatrains he is credited with were composed in the courts of India in the 18th century CE, Delhi and Lucknow and Murshidabad and even perhaps in the Carnatic.
Omar Khayyám would not have registered so prominently, if at all, as a poet, were it not for the translation of some of his rubáiyát done into English by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald fell in love with Persian poetry while reading the Persian Grammar written by Sir William Jones (the 18th century Orientalist who lies buried in the Park Street cemetery in Kolkata).
Jones, typically for him, illustrated seminal points of Persian grammar with examples from the great Persian poets, Háfez and Sa'adi and Ashraf and Jámí. How many grammarians today act on the assumption that, if you want people to learn, love and really understand a language, it is to its poetry they should be pointed?
FitzGerald had as his Persian teacher Edward Cowell, Professor at Presidency College. Both men came up with translated versions of Omar's rubáiyát, and the only time FitzGerald, described as "a silent Vesuvius," gainsaid his teacher was to say it was his own versions that should be published since he felt for Omar as Cowell did not.
The publisher in question was not interested and so FitzGerald published 75 English versions of old Omar's quatrains privately and anonymously in 1859. As usually happens with poetry, they fell dead from the press.
A couple of years later, Whitley Stokes, a lawyer and translator, together with a friend of his, chanced on copies of this book selling for one penny in a remainders box in (what is now) the Charing Cross Road in London. He bought copies and passed them on to friends.
There is an overlooked Indian connection here. Stokes, a Dubliner unable to find work in London, sailed for Madras shortly afterwards and evidently took a copy of the Rubáiyát with him. Once in Madras, Stokes met up with Thomas Evans Bell, a dissident army officer who was Hon. Sec. of the Madras Literary Society, and together they printed (anonymously) a pirate edition of the Rubáiyát.It not only reproduced Fitzgerald's translations of Omar's rubáiyát but also 32 by Cowell (published in the Calcutta Review, 1858), 10 in French by Garcin de Tassy and 15 versions by Stokes himself.
Translation of Poetry
So much for the history. The nature of poetry we may consider by comparing the various ways Cowell and FitzGerald and Stokes translate Omar's rubáiyát.
A four line rubái is actually a complete poem, though Fitzgerald, in his edition, decided to string his versions into a tessellated mosaic. Even from his mosaic, they may be extracted and read as separate pieces and it is a pleasant exercise for readers to decide which half a dozen discrete poems are their favourites.
Here are three versions of the rubái numbered as 72 in FitzGerald's collection:
Alas that the book of youth is folded,
And the fresh purple spring become December;
That bird of joy, whose name was youth, -
Alas I know not, how he came or is gone!
Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!
Alas for me! The Book of Youth is read,
The fresh, glad Spring is now December dead:
That Bird of joy whose name was Youth is flown –
Ay me, I know not how he came or fled!
Cowell wishes to be faithful to the original Persian, FitzGerald to the poetic possibilities of the English language, while Stokes is simply using the form he sees FitzGerald has used to versify Cowell's faithful line-by-line prose version.
Those who argue in favour of a translation faithful to the original set aside the fact that creating a poem that lives is a high risk activity. All poetry is a translation (a Latin root word that, like the Greek root word metaphor, has the meaning of carrying across) in that the poet is trying to find the best words for an experience that resists expression.
No wonder P.Lal in his Poets' Workshop in Kolkata preferred the concept of "transcreation".
It probably says something about the nature of poetry itself that the whole story of the rubáiyát ascribed to Omar Khayyám is one of appropriation and piracy. Poetry is a dodgy activity.
We have no idea who composed the so-called "originals," almost certainly many hands, by the time you come to the copy containing 801 and a half quatrains given to Stokes in Madras by his tailor, Saifuddin.
Stokes and Bell pirated FitzGerald's work in their Madras edition without even knowing the name of the author (Stokes at the time supposed it was Cowell) and, by the end of the century, when the poem (after FitzGerald's death) had finally became immensely popular, the publishers had to give up threatening the pirates with prosecution for breach of copyright--so many were they.
The Persian Sentiment
Sir William Jones had hoped that a growing familiarity with the beauties of Persian and Indian poetry would revivify the tired and artificial diction and imagery of English poetry. The súfi spirit of Jones's own essays did inspire English poets such as Coleridge and Shelley but it is perhaps only FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám that bears out the hope he had.
FitzGerald's translation was done in the very months in 1857 when the British were dealing a death-blow to the empire that had brought the Persian poetry into India. The passing away of empire – and indeed all things – is a common sentiment and one that, for example, endeared the work of Sa'adi to the self-educated Evans Bell.
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahrám, that great hunter – the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep. (17).
Ironically, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, with its melancholy observations on the inevitable passing of empires and the futility of human ambition, enjoyed its greatest popularity in England several decades later when the British Empire was apparently at the height of its power.
Less surprisingly, copies of cheap editions were found in the pockets of ordinary soldiers slaughtered in their thousands during the First World War.
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two – is gone. (14).
John Drew loves poetry, cricket, and all things literary. He is also an occasional contributor to the Star Literature Page.