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ifitzgr001p1I had not initially thought of including Edward Fitzgerald in this series, since he is renowned for only a single work, and that too a translation. But it was a translation that was enormously influential, not only in making the British reader aware of the poetry of another country, but also in propagating a vision of the world that was quite different from the staid conformity we associate with Victorian Britain.

I have stressed the other country, because I believe the way in which Britain configured the world in the 19th century is of political as well as sociological interest. That was the time in which the process of othering,  of setting up dichotomies, was given free rein. In South Asia it led to the assertion of a distinction between Aryans and Dravidians, setting up distinctions of race with regard to what might at best have been linguistic divisions. And with regard to the Muslims, it claimed that there were Aryans, as represented by the good old Persians, in contrast with Semites – Arabs lumped together with the Jews in a somewhat inferior category that the West now forgets it propagated – and also what were termed Hamites.

This is not the place to go into detail about the extraordinary distinctions Europe perpetrated in its disjunctive view of the world, but I should note in passing how this preposterous analysis is said to have contributed too to the supposedly scientific differentiation between Tutsi and Hutu that contributed to the Rwandan genocide. Here I should note only the privileging of Persian culture that Britons like Fitzgerald engaged in during the 19th century which also contributed to the characterization of the Turks as an upstart race. Turkey was still then the Sick Man of Europe, and from a British perspective it made sense to create a very different type of Muslim who was a sort of younger brother, Aryan and really almost Christian – as in a very different way, when the United States was deeply anti Iranian and thought Saddam Hussein a good thing, I heard supposedly erudite academics (when I was lecturing on the Semester at Sea programme of the University of Pittsburgh) distinguishing between fanatic Shiites and more balanced Sunnis.

In the 19th century the relatively powerless Shiites were the Muslims of preference, Aryans of course, and Omar Khayyam was emphatically one of us. Of course this was an enlightened associate, sharing in the hedonism that the advanced thinkers of the Victorian era could cultivate. And so the Rubaiyat became a Bible as it were of free thinking, of hedonism twinned with world weary philosophy.

Fitzgerald was a genius in this vein. Later translations of Omar Khayyam, for instance that of the distinguished 20th century poet Robert Graves, were said to be closer to the original, but they were comparatively dull, and if Omar Khayyam deserves immortality in the English speaking world, it is and will be because of Fitzgerald.

The opening of Fitsgerald’s first version, published in 1859, is rousing, but moves swiftly to the main theme of the poem, the brevity of life and the imperative therefore to both enjoy and forget this reality



 Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

 Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:

 And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

 The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.



 Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky

 I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,

 “Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup

 Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”



 And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before

 The Tavern shouted—”Open then the Door.

 You know how little while we have to stay,

 And, once departed, may return no more.”


This ancient theme of the vanity of human wishes, the passing of time and the destruction of what seems permanent, is further elaborated by Fitzgerald in memorable images. These culminate in the 18th quatrain with its evocation of continuity of a sort a Caesar at the height of his power would scarcely envisage



 Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai

 Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,

 How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp

 Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.



 They say the Lion and the Lizard keep

 The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:

 And Bahram, that great Hunter—the Wild Ass

 Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.



 I sometimes think that never blows so red

 The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;

 That every Hyacinth the Garden wears

 Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head

In reading Fitzgerald over the years, I had assumed that his hedonism was of the usual sort, and the Thou singing beside him in the Wilderness was of the opposite sex. In checking on details for this account however I found that Fitzgerald was probably homosexual, with a devotion initially to a younger boy, and later to a stalwart fisherman.  He did marry, but this was to the daughter of an old friend, out of a sense of obligation, which naturally led to an unhappy wedded life. The fisherman, long after Fitzgerald was dead, had a memorable story of how ‘one day he and Fitzgerald were walking along when they saw Mrs Fitzgerald walking towards them. As they came up to one another, Fitzgerald and his wife both removed their gloves and reached out in a formal greeting – but Posh could swear that their hands just hovered above one another and that their fingers never actually touched.’

Such an encounter is a far cry from perhaps the most famous quatrain in Fitzgerald’s translation



 Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

 A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou

 Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

 And Wilderness is Paradise enow.


But one realizes, going through the whole remarkable volume again, that there is much less about romance than one remembered, and much more about the pleasures of wine. But this last, which could be tedious, is balanced by the flippant but pervasive awareness of human helplessness in the cycle of life



 The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

 Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

 Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

 Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it



 And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,

 Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,

 Lift not thy hands to IT for help—for It

 Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.


Fitzgerald concluded his first attempt at translating the Rubaiyat with what he termed the ‘Book of Pots’ which memorably images humanity’s place in creation



 And strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot

 Some could articulate, while others not:

 And suddenly one more impatient cried—

 “Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”



 Then said another—”Surely not in vain

 My substance from the common Earth was ta’en,

 That He who subtly wrought me into Shape

 Should stamp me back to common Earth again.”



 Another said—”Why, ne’er a peevish Boy

 Would break the Bowl from which he drank in Joy;

 Shall He that made the Vessel in pure Love

 And Fansy, in an after Rage destroy!”

In later versions he mingles that section with the main set of verses, but I find the earlier version stronger – not least because it gives prominence to the last of the main set, that precedes the image of the pots. That last quatrain articulates a forceful challenge to the creator of the pots that have established their own distinctive sense of being



 Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,

 And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;

 For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man

 Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give—and take!