Despite its’ many controversies, the Rubaiyat remains one of the, arguably, most surprising hidden gems in second hand bookstores awaiting the unsuspecting reader.
Bare with me as I borrow greatly from Laurence Housman for this introductory piece, my knowledge on the poetic works of yesteryear or even today is lacking to say the least.
For the most part to the English reading community the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam refers to a particular translation done by one Edward Fitzgerald in what Housman describes as ;
“….when the Victorian era was at its most self-centered and self-sufficient stage of development.”
Whatever the controversies may be, it can be agreed that it has not dimmed the books worth, if anything, it can be said that the translation has given a certain beauty and perhaps even his own flavor to the work. For this book is a second hand book. There lies between us and it – a gap.
“For the translator of poetry and vision always stands between us and the original.”Housman
It cannot be ignored however, as there exists proof in the works of the very free and pliant variants of the so called ‘rival versions’ be they early or later. They are luckily mostly available. As Housman says – “….and it is only necessary to compare Fitzgerald’s amended form of the opening stanza with his original, to realize how large a liberty he gave himself when rendering into English the richly-coloured similes of the East “
Take for example these two versions, one late, one earlier.
The “later” version
Wake! For the Sun behind yon Eastern height has chased the Session of the Stars from Night ; And, to the field of Heav'n ascend- ing, strikes The Sultan's Turret with a Shaft of Light.
The “earlier” version
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
Both have their merits and I like many others would side that the earlier sounds more elegant. Housman argues that the very existence of variants is cause for celebration of the work as an inspired paraphrase rather than a mere translation. Liberties were taken however as is shown with the following –
“Dreaming, when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the sky”
changed to the more graceful but ordinary :-
“Before the phantom of False Morning died.”
Fitzgerald, a recluse in his time was still very much a Victorian and it was in that very “Victorian” manner that he gave himself the free hand to introduce the arguments he had with “…..the hectic touch of European theology rather than the bland, imperturbable acquiescence of the East”.
Despite all this, the book remains, and is more than acceptable to all but scholars or pedants.
But more on that next time.