Omar Khayyám was a Persian poet and general genius who lived from 1048–1131. He wrote on Euclid, on the philosophy of mathematics and various aspects of geometry. He is also said to have helped correct errors in the Persian calendar. He wrote approx. a thousand quatrains (or ruba’i رباعی) of verse, which were famously translated much later in the 19th century by the British poet Edward FitzGerald.
Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is notoriously not a literal translation, with much poetic material added by FitzGerald himself. It was however so popular that it even brought Omar Khayyam back to the attention of Iranian readers, who had largely forgotten his work. With popularity came debate, as is usually the case with great literature.
Debate has often centred around the extent of Omar Khayyam’s Sufism, since the FitzGerald translation often indicates more materialistic, sensual and agnostic concerns. Abdullah Dougan, a Sufi thinker, has written a defence of Khayyam’s religiosity, claiming that the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has been misread without receptivity to the allegorised undertones of spirituality. This mystical, esoteric reading of Khayyam seems likely to have merit to me, since Khayyam did write some orthodox Islamic texts. Mehdi Aminrazavi in The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005) agrees that the poetry of Omar Khayyam is compatible with a Sufi worldview and in fact that he was interpreted this way even during his own lifetime.
I sometimes worry about readings of poems that, in worrying about legitimising the poem as important and non-threatening to a religion/philosophy, end up ringing away ambiguities. Ambivalences, moments of doubt, courage, revolt or sheer brazenness can too easily get subsumed under a totalising allegorised reading. But at any rate, it seems entirely sure that Omar Khayyam expressed mystical and sincerely probing moments of spirituality in his verse.
Back to Edward FitzGerald much-heralded, much-maligned and most of all much-read translation…I would say that dismissing FitzGerald’s version on the grounds of its lack of faithfulness to Khayyam is a mistake. FitzGerald is in my opinion a poet in his own right, who translated a certain sensuality and power that may not be fully representative of his source text, but stands in its own right as poetry, rather than ordinary translation.
On another note, FitzGerald’s translation has elicited an enormous amount of illustration – so much that I think it merits a future post.