The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – Translation and Interpretation

The Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, Iran

The Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, Iran

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.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Himmapaan

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Himmapaan

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.

Illustration of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Illustration of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Rene Bull

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.

Illustrated by Edward Gedde

Illustrated by Edward Gedde

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.

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Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book

sei shonagon

In summer, it is the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies can be seen mingling in flight. One even feels charmed when just one or two pass by, giving off a gentle glow. Rainy nights, too, are delightful. – Source

Sei Shōnagon (c. 966-1017) was a Japanese lady who served under Empress Teishi in the late 10th to very early 11th century. Her father was a poet and scholar and Sei Shōnagon was intimately concerned with poetry, politeness, nature, court behaviour. Her Pillow Book is a compilation of poems, notes, observations, essays, etc. that concern all these topics and more. It is in what is known as the zuihitsu ( 随筆 ) style, that is a collection of commentaries in various forms that usually respond to the author’s surroundings and daily life. Perhaps a little like the Western commonplace book, although with more focus on the author’s diaristic voice than the collection of quotations, knowledge, etc. Or, as another blogger suggests, not unlike many modern day blogs!

sei shonagon 2

On a night when you’re waiting for someone to come, there’s a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart suddenly beat faster. – ‘Things that make your heart beat faster’, Source

The Pillow Book contains a number of lists such as things that should be large, things that should be short, things that are hateful, things that make the heart beat faster… I think this is my favourite aspect of the Pillow Book. The joy of the list should never be underestimated! It reminds me of Western medieval writers around the same time as Sei Shōnagon, who took equal joy in crafting lists of things like knowledge, theology and angels. Well, Sei Shōnagon is perhaps more interested in the observational; in lists of life’s minutiae, the peculiarities of her own existence and surroundings. But the idea of compiling a list of things that make the heart beat faster is, to me, a wonderful way of encapsulating a variety of small events into an overarching category that suddenly makes you appreciate those little things so much more.

Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎)

Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎)

Sei Shōnagon is known to have been rivals with the other great writer of the Heian court, Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji). It is often said that Sei Shōnagon is conceited, ‘bitchy’, even, in her Pillow Book. Without a doubt, she is no people-pleaser and not one to hold back her opinions (even if they might grate on modern ears – she was no fan of the commoner). But she was learned, witty and if she was sometimes harsh, well, she was a commentator – who doesn’t revel in pointing the finger at the irritations of court life?

‘On things that are hateful’ – A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper. “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where on earth can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behaviour! “Hateful” is an understatement. –  Source

The Tale of Murasaki

murasaki liza dalby

I’ve admired Liza Dalby’s work since I read her book Geisha when I was 16. I will admit that I haven’t yet read the Tale of Genji, but I decided to delve into Dalby’s Tale of Murasaki anyway in the hopes of getting a feel for the world of Genji and 10th/11th century Japan.

And this book definitely gave me a feel for it and more. Dalby tells the story of the court lady ‘Murasaki’ in the first person, chronicling her life in and out of court, her loves and family and her writing of what many people recognise as the world’s first novel.

yoshitoshi Murasaki

There is a certain vividness to the account that makes the reader yearn for the landscapes and fabrics, poetic courtships and court intrigues of Murasaki’s world. There are a few footnotes throughout the book, with interesting tidbits like the fact that in Japanese at this time, incense was described as being ‘heard’ not ‘smelled’ and that women inherited the family houses whereas men were expected to make their way through court ambitions in order to gain lodging. Personally, I would have liked more of these fascinating side-notes but there is still plenty in the story itself that signals great depth of research on Dalby’s part.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Tale of Murasaki and if the plot lags in parts, this is redeemed by the attentiveness to detail and vividness of the atmosphere.

Leaders of the First Crusade: Godfrey of Bouillon

Godfrey of Bouillon, from a fresco painted by Giacomo Jaquerio in Saluzzo, northern Italy, in 1420 ca.

Godfrey of Bouillon, from a fresco painted by Giacomo Jaquerio in Saluzzo, northern Italy, in 1420 ca.

Godfrey of Bouillon (c. 1060 – 18 July 1100) was the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and one of the main leaders of the First Crusade. He was a second son, born in an area now France and then part of the Holy Roman Empire. When Urban II preached the crusade, Godfrey and his brothers, Eustace and Baldwin, decided to gather armies and march for the Holy Land.

Godfrey played minor but consistent roles in the battles of the First Crusade. He was present at the siege of Nicaea and the battle of Dorylaeum and at the capturing of Antioch. Meanwhile, Godfrey’s landless younger brother Baldwin was making a name for himself by becoming Count of Edessa.

Godfrey of Bouillon became a crusading legend when he was one of the first over the walls at the taking of Jerusalem in 1099.

Godfrey of Bouillon

Godfrey of Bouillon

He was offered the crown and according to the later historian William of Tyre, he refused to wear a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorns. Godfrey faced difficulties in his leadership at Jerusalem, first from the Fatimids of Egypt, whom he defeated, and then from Dagobert of Pisa.

Dagebert of Pisa sailing with the other crusade leader Bohemond

Dagobert of Pisa sailing with the other crusade leader Bohemond

Dagobert of Pisa had been chosen as patriarch of Jerusalem, effectively the church authority in the new Latin kingdoms. Dagobert pushed Godfrey to concede Jerusalem to his rule and there was a ceremony held on Easter, 1100, at which Godfrey allowed Dagobert to be his heir upon Godfrey’s death. Dagobert went campaigning with the other Crusader leader, Tancred (who was Bohemond of Antioch’s nephew) and unfortunately for the Patriarch, while he was gone Godfrey died. There are conflicting accounts of how Godfrey died, probably of some kind of illness, but his death prompted the knights of Jerusalem to offer the rulership to Baldwin, Godfrey’s younger brother, instead of Dagobert.

Stained glass window of Godfrey of Bouillon in the Belfry of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.

Stained glass window of Godfrey of Bouillon in the Belfry of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.

Baldwin would become the first King of Jerusalem, but Godfrey would long be remembered as a crusading hero, showing up in Dante’s Divine Comedy as a warrior of Mars and in one of Tasso’s works of crusading romance.

Japanese Bunjinga Painting: Kameda Bosai

南画 (nanga) or 文人画 (bunjinga) was a style of Japanese art that flourished during the Edo period. It is associated with literati elites who had a keen interest in Chinese styles of painting, even though Japan was in the sakoku (鎖国 ‘locked country’) period of seclusion from other countries.

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan ('Mountains of the Heart')

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan (Mountains of the Heart)

Kameda Bōsai ( 亀田鵬斎 ) lived from 1752–1826 and contributed a great deal to scholarly discourse on art and his book Mountains of the Heart is considered a classic work of woodblock art. I love the barely-there atmosphere of the pages above, the way that we know there is a river taking up most of the page, because there is a boat and there are reeds emerging from it, yet there is absolutely no painted presence to the river itself.

Kameda Bōsai book 2

The above pages from Mountains of the Heart give me such a sense of serenity. Again, there is very little there to suggest the vast expanse of the main scenic features, in this case the mountains. There is the faint, distant shading of mountain. And as is so typical of much East Asian art, the actual human figure is small, another element to a broader vision of nature. To me, the little fellow pottering over the bridge here makes me think of small crossings, little moments of liminality where one part of the landscape trickles into another and one morning saunters into another afternoon.

no time or need now,

to halt, to gaze, to see all.

the river knows me.

Leaders of the First Crusade: Bohemond I of Antioch

Bohemond-I Bohemond (c. 1058-1111) was the son of Robert Guiscard (the ‘Fox’), a Norman ruler of Calabria and Apulia who had plagued the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I and taken Sicily. Bohemond travelled with his father on campaign against the Byzantines. When Robert Guiscard died, he left Bohemond as his oldest son from a first wife but the majority of his inheritances fell to Roger, his younger son from a more recent marriage. Bohemond was naturally annoyed and so he made war against his brother Roger. Eventually this culminated in Bohemond settling for the southern-Italian city Taranto and some other possessions, although Bohemond was still an ambitious man.

When the crusaders marched through Amalfi in Italy, where Bohemond was campaigning, he got caught by the crusading fever and began to ready himself right away. As one of the most prominent leaders of the First Crusade, Bohemond managed to cut a deal with the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I that he could go through Constantinople. He also lead the crusaders through Asia Minor, which was no easy task. The Byzantine princess and historian, a fourteen year old when she met Bohemond, wrote an engaging description of the Norman crusader: For by his nostrils nature had given free passage for the high spirit which bubbled up from his heart. A certain charm hung about this man but was partly marred by a general air of the horrible.

Bohemond, sketch by Lowgan (on newgrounds):

Bohemond, sketch by Lowgan (on newgrounds)

In 1098, Bohemond played a large role in capturing Antioch. He managed to get a wealthy weapons maker called Firouz to spy for him within Antioch. Firouz was an Armenian Christian who was unhappy with his position in the Turkish government. His wife had been seduced by a Turkish soldier, he had been fined and he was ready to betray the Turkish rule in Antioch. One day Firouz threw a rope ladder over the wall for Bohemond’s men, inciting the Armenians within Antioch to massacre the Turks, leading to the crusaders taking the city.

Boehmond captures Antioch by L.Gallait, 1840, "Croisades, origines et consequences"

Boehmond captures Antioch by L.Gallait, 1840, “Croisades, origines et consequences”

After he and Raymond of Toulouse secured Antioch against the reinforcements of the Turkish Atabeg, Kerbogha, Raymond left to pursue more territory and Bohemond stayed behind in Antioch. He kicked Raymond’s forces out, seizing the city for himself. But neither Raymond of Toulouse nor the Byzantine Empire were on Bohemond’s side. Bohemond’s family had harried the Byzantines and he was far too brash and Norman for the Komnenian family’s liking. He’d also regularly insulted Raymond, who believed he had found the Holy Lance – Bohemond wasn’t so sure.

At any rate, Bohemond got himself captured by a Turkish commander in 1100 and was held for three years before anyone ransomed him. In the meantime, his nephew Tancred had been ruling Antioch and irritating the Byzantines.

Tancred

Tancred

Suffering more setbacks to expansion, Bohemond returned to Europe in 1104 and began building an army. He told tales of high chivalry and adventure and he was so charismatic and illustrious that Henry I, King of England, forbade him from coming ashore since he would have such sway over the nobles. But he managed to to win the hand of Constance, daughter of the King of France. They had a son, Bohemond, who would later rule Antioch as Bohemond II.

The Marriage of Bohemond and Constance

The Marriage of Bohemond and Constance

Foolishly, Alexius used his new army of over 30,000 to try and attack Emperor Alexius I. He was defeated and had to give way to the Treaty of Devol in 1108, which was intended to make Antioch a vassal state of Byzantium and install a Greek Patriarch for the church there. For Bohemond, this was the end of his expansionist dreams and he died a few years later in Sicily. For his nephew Tancred, who had more than a pinch of his uncle’s zeal, the treaty was an affront to his right of conquest. So in actuality, Antioch was not made a vassal state of Byzantium until 1158.

Leaders of the First Crusade: Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse

Raymond_IV_of_Toulouse crus

Raymond IV of Toulouse, painted by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1840s)

Raymond IV of Toulouse (sometimes known as Raymond of Saint-Gilles) was an old, rich, deeply religious and well respected man when the First Crusade was preached in 1095. When the crusaders were pushed to swear an oath of fealty to the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, Raymond managed not to lower himself to the emperor – instead he swore an oath of friendship and was allowed to proceed with the crusade. The historian and princess Anna Komnene said that her father Emperor Alexius I had a ‘deep affection’ for Raymond (The Alexiad Book 10).

Raymond’s major role in the First Crusade comes when rumour reaches him that Antioch has been abandoned by the Turks. He rushes his army in, but found the city was still defended. Antioch was only captured after a siege in 1098 and after this the Turks, led by the Atabeg (a governor and soldier in charge of raising the Turkic crown prince) called Kerbogha. Kerbogha laid siege to Antioch to try and win it back from the Crusaders.

During this time, Raymond was ill but hopes started to look up when the monk Peter Bartholomew proclaimed that he had found the Holy Lance. Well, he had a vision of where the Holy Lance was and they started digging, finding nothing until the over-enthusiastic Peter Bartholomew jumped into the pit and digging a bit further managed to produce the Lance. Did he have it up his sleeve the whole time? That’s what some people were whispering. But Raymond was convinced.

Finding the Holy Lance, 15th century depiction

Finding the Holy Lance, 15th century depiction

Due in part to Kerbogha’s bad intelligence about the Crusader Franks being an undisciplined lot, and perhaps due to their high morale on finding the Holy Lance, Raymond’s men defeated the Turkish besiegers and Antioch was theirs. After Raymond left, the other Crusade leader Bohemond took over Antioch and Raymond was left to find other territories.

Citadel of Raymond of Toulouse in Tripoli, modern Lebanon

‘Mons Peregrinus’, the Citadel of Raymond of Toulouse in Tripoli, modern Lebanon, known as Qala’at Sanjil in Arabic

After Jerusalem was taken by the Crusaders in 1099, Raymond was offered to be King of Jerusalem. He seemed to feel it would be wrong to be a king where Jesus had died and so he refused the crown. Instead Raymond became involved in various territorial disputes with Bohemond, then participated in the disastrous Crusade of 1101 where the Turks destroyed the Frankish forces.

Raymond survived, however, and eventually in 1102 he laid siege to Tripoli, building the Mons Peregrinus in the process. In 1105 Raymond died. Tripoli was taken after his death and became the fourth crusader state.