Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read from Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s “The Rubaiyat,” click below:
I mentioned earlier how difficult it is to make translations memorable. The translator has to replicate the meter, rhyme, and meaning of the original work, and ordinarily, something has to give.
But there are very rare occasions when the translation is so good it actually supersedes the original, taking it to a wider audience. If there is an argument for anyone having done that, it is probably Edward FitzGerald with his translation of “The Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam.
Khayyam was a Persian polymath who lived between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The likelihood that he actually authored the numerous quatrains (four-line poems) attributed to him looks increasingly slim—modern scholarship suggests it was written by multiple authors.
But a number of four-line poems from the period had his name attached to them, and in the 1850s, the poet Edward FitzGerald—working with copies of Khayyam’s works sent to him from India as well as copies at Oxford’s Bodleian Library—set to work translating Khayyam.
There is a tendency nowadays to look down on Orientalists like FitzGerald, but they included remarkable people who learned foreign languages and sometimes rediscovered them as well as their treasures.
Who knows precisely what it was that sparked FitzGerald to create his masterpiece? A 2016 double biography of Khayyam and FitzGerald didn’t offer much help. But then, perhaps, nothing could.
Most likely, the young FitzGerald saw in these quatrains a way to pour out something he couldn’t dare to put in his own voice. For the originals are not only godless and hedonistic, but positively joyous in their heresy. The main message—apart from praise of wine—is essentially carpe diem: seize the day.
Whoever the original author is, there is no doubt that the quatrains come from a tradition of Sufi literature in Islam best known, perhaps, for the works of Rumi. There too, incidentally, is a poet who is wonderful to read. But Rumi never found a translator like FitzGerald. No one ever did.
And yet when FitzGerald’s translations were first published, they failed to launch. The first privately printed edition of 250 copies, in 1859, didn’t sell a single copy.
Then, at some point, a copy found its way to the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who in turn passed it to the poet and playwright Algernon Charles Swinburne, and soon the poem’s reputation had gathered steam. By the end of the nineteenth century, millions of copies of FitzGerald’s translation had been sold.
Such was the success of the early editions that FitzGerald added further translations to the later ones. Some people—including the editor of the recent Oxford edition of the original text—regard the later editions as “bloated.” I disagree. They include some stanzas that stick most in many heads, including mine.
From the very opening lines of the first edition of FitzGerald’s work, you cannot help but be seized: