A Library of Congress Lecture - Reading Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat Within Their Historical Context" by Dr. Mehdi Aminrazav
I loved The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam when I first read it about fifty years ago, it very much struck accord with my late adolescent view of life. I am very glad I decided to once again experience this wonderful poem. Basing my background knowledge from the lecture linked to above, I learned Edward FitzGerald, whose command of Persian is considered by academics weak, said he did not claim to translate Khayyam but rendered the spirit of his poetry into some of the most beautiful verse in any language.
Omar Khayyam was a man of great talent, a brilliant mathematician, a scholar of Persian philosophy and literature. He is thought to have been of Zoroastrian heritage. As a youth he was considered so intelligent that he was sent at age six to the court for his education to be supervised. In time he was offered very high government positions but instead he accepted an orchard which would provide him with a large income and free him to study and write. He was writing as Persia, now Iran, was going into a period of cultural and political decline. His work seems to suggest one seize the day, enjoying the pleasures of the Flesh, especially wine. He does not deny the afterlife, he just suggests there is scant evidence for many of the established religious dictums. His tone is almost as if he is mocking the alleged learned of Persia. Those convinced of any dogma would probably find his words offensive even today. I venture no citizen of Iran would dare publish such thoughts now.
FitzGerald created one of the great texts of English Romanticism. He was also a strong influence on American transcendentalism. Edward Said has something to say about all this. As to the original poem, there is no surviving copy, the oldest version found in Persian dates from years after Khayyam's death.
Long ago I loved this poem, and now I love it once more. Death, as it does in much Romantic era poetry, permeates this poem. Probably when I read this the first time I was most struck by the attitude taken toward received wisdom, now I see the role of death much more. Khayyam and FitzGerald are the enemies of the smug, those worshipping ignorance.
Have you read the Rubaiyat? Do you have a favorite quatrain?